Poker Strategy - Four Key Poker Skills

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Thinking Like a Poker Player

  • Poker pros are commonly described as tight and aggressive or A.K.A. Stone Cold Killers: "These poker pros do not play many hands, but when they play them, they play them like they had the nuts."

  • That's a nice general description, but it doesn't say much. And it's not even totally right about no-limit games, since a solid, loose-aggressive player is a person to be feared. Thus, I think when people say a player is tight-aggressive and therefore good, I really think they mean that the player has mastered four critical elements of poker.

Mental Discipline

  • Good poker players demand an advantage. What separates a winning poker player from a fish (new player) is that a fish does not expect to win, while a poker player does. A fish is happy playing craps, roulette, the slots; he just hopes to get lucky. A poker player does not hope to get lucky; he just hopes others don't have better luck than him.

  • Good poker players understand that a different game requires a different discipline. A disciplined no-limit player can be a horrible limit player and vice versa. A disciplined limit player has solid pre-flop skills. When there is not much action pre-flop, he or she only plays the better hands. When a lot of people are limping in, he or she will make a loose call with a suited connector or other speculative hand.

  • However, a disciplined no-limit player is very different. This player is not so concerned with paying too many blinds; instead, he or she does not want to get trapped. The main difference between disciplined limit players and disciplined no-limit players is that the limit player avoids piddling away his stack bit by bit while a disciplined no-limit player avoids losing his whole stack in one hand. Hence, a disciplined no-limit player can play a lot of hands. Preflop, he or she can be extremely loose and limp in with hands as odd as 5 of spades and 3 of diamonds. However, a good no-limit player knows when to toss hands that will get him or her in trouble.

  • A disciplined player knows when to play and when to quit. He recognizes when he is on tilt (emotional irrational decisions - positive or negative) and is aware when a game is too juicy to just quit while ahead.

  • A disciplined player knows that he is not perfect. When a disciplined player makes a mistake, he learns. He does not blame others or bad beats. He does not cry. He learns from the mistake and moves on. Ups and dows are part of the game. Once you learn this you can control your emotions.

Psychological Skills

  • A good player is not a self-centered player. He may be the biggest SOB you know. He may not care about anyone but himself, and he may enjoy stealing food from the poor. However, when a poker pro walks into a poker room, he always empathizes with his opponents. He tries to think what they think and understand the decisions they make and why they make them. The poker pro always tries to have an answer to these questions:

    What does my opponent have?
    What does my opponent think I have?
    What does my opponent think I think he has?


  • Knowing the answer to these questions is the first step, manipulating the answers is the second and more important step. If you have a pair of kings and your foe has a pair of aces, and you both know what each other have and both know that you each know what the other has, why play a game of poker? A poker pro manipulates the latter two answers by slowplaying, fastplaying, and bluffing in order to throw his opponent off.

  • Good poker players know that psychology is much, much, much more important in a no-limit game than in a limit one. Limit games often turn into math battles, while no-limit games carry a strong psychology component. Thus, poker tells are much more important in no-limit games than limit games.

Analytical Skills

  • Good players know that you have about 1 in 8.5 chance of hitting a set when holding a pocket pair, and that you have about a 1 in 3 chance of completing a flopped flush draw by the river.

  • Good players know the importance of 'outs.' Outs are simply the number of cards that will improve your hand. Count your outs, multiply them by two, and add one, and that's roughly the percentage shot you have at hitting.

  • Good players can figure out the 'pot odds.' Knowing outs is meaningless unless it's translated into rational, calculated betting. Knowing you have a 20% chance of hitting, what do you do then? Well, simply once you figure out your chance of hitting/winning, you divide the size of the pot at the river (i.e. the current pot plus the amount of money that you think will be added through future bets) by the amount you have to put in. If you have a 20% chance of hitting and the bet to you is 50, if the pot at the river will be greater than 250, call. If not, fold.

  • Analytical skills are the most basic knowledge; it's day one reading. Anyone who doesn't understand these concepts should not play in a game until they do.

A Clear Understanding of Risk vs. Reward

  • Pot odds and demanding an advantage fall into this category. Poker players are willing to take a long-shot risk if the reward is high enough, but only if the expected return is higher than the risk.

  • More importantly, they understand the risk-vs.-reward nature of the game outside of the actual poker room. They know how much bank they need to play, and how much money they need in reserve to cover other expenses in life.

  • Good poker players understand they need to be more risk-averse with their overall bankroll than their stack at the table.

  • When you play in an individual game, you must value every chip equally at the table. You should only care about making correct plays. If you buy in for $10, you should be okay with taking a 52% chance of doubling up to $20 if it means a 48% chance of losing your $10.

  • However, you should be risk-averse with your overall bankroll. You need to have enough money so that any day at the tables will not affect your bankroll too much. If you worry too much about losing, then you will make mistakes and second guess yourself at the table. You need to leave yourself with the chance to fight another day.

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