Winning at poker is an art and not a science; the best poker players have an incredible mix of analytical and personal skills. To fulfill your potential at the poker table you need to develop a strategy: not an inflexible set of steps, but an overarching approach to your play which will give you long-term success. In short, you need a set of principles.
The technical detail of knowing your pot odds, understanding EV as the game progresses, and being able to deploy these strategies across different variables of poker is important, but it only makes up a small portion of a player’s overall strategy. In this article we’re going to look at some of these strategic principles in a little more detail:
Principle One – Don’t Think in Hands
“Thus what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy”
Getting a feel for what hand your opponent has is a critical part of poker. Most players think about this very specifically, for example, I think they have. This is flawed because statistically you’ll be wrong most of the time. It’s better to think more broadly in terms of the type of hand a player has: it could be a flush, high pair, middle pair, low pair, draw, ace-high or a bluff. Making these judgements will mean you have a better likelihood of success and it will be easier to start spotting how often these hands are played. It’s also important that you can make snap judgements on the potential pot odds. This is a faster and more effective way to help you understand your opponent better.
Principle Two – Trust in your Game Plan
“A goal without a plan is just a wish”
There are a million reasons why your game plan may change or fail, and that’s fine. What isn’t going to cut it in poker is deviating from the game plan for the wrong reasons because you’re annoyed, or bored, or tilted or because you feel lucky.
Every hand and every poker session are important because the margins are so small. So as your strategy and plan evolves don’t make poor bets because of external factors. Have what psychologists term a high locus of control, which means you feel a high degree of control over what happens to you. Accept that poker carries a large element of fortune but control everything else, starting with your game plan.
Principle Three – Be Measured
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight”
Having a clear game plan is important, but knowing when to deviate from it is just as important. In any given session there will be reasons to mix up your strategy, for example when playing with weaker players, passive players, or the size of your chip stack. You may raise when you would normally fold and in the right circumstances this can be effective.
Ensure that you always have a clear reason to deviate. Just saying that you’re bored or want a change isn’t good enough. Have the discipline to be measured, no matter how hard that is in a long poker session.
Principle 4 – Play in the Right Games
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker”
~Mike McDermott (in the film ‘Rounders’)
You need to find games where you can win, and the better your opponent the lower your chance of winning. Good poker may get you a small return against better players but playing weaker players can increase your chances of winning exponentially. Not just winning but winning big.
For players serious about winning and making money from poker try and find games where the quality is as low as possible and the stakes are high. Obviously it’s hard to find these games but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. To win big you need to bring your skills to bear against these weaker players.
Principle 5 – Don’t be Bullied
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
There are two types of poker bully. The one who applies pressure at the right time as part of a well thought out strategy or someone being aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Once you’ve identified the type of bully you can do a few simple things to deal with the issue, because it will happen from time to time.
If you need to fold then do so. Do not get goaded into an aggressive war for no reason. Take it hand by hand and your time will come. Think about your demeanour: are you seemingly nervous or vulnerable? If so, aim for impassive body language; this is easier to fake than confidence.