Keeping Some Poker Perspective

The information explosion is everywhere, and Poker is no different. More has been written about Poker in the past 20 years than had previously been written in the entire history of the game.

After you’ve made a commitment to reach for the stars, you have to decide where to begin. If you aspire to Poker excellence, the first — and probably the most important step — is to develop a perspective that enables you to put each piece of information into a hierarchical structure. After all, some things are more important than others, and you may as well concentrate your efforts where they’ll do the most good. These sections can help you know what’s important and what’s not.

Knowing why some tactics are important in Poker

and others aren’t

Imagine that we could teach you a terrific tactical ploy that would require some real study and practice to perfect — but once learned, could be used to earn an extra bet from an opponent. What if we also guaranteed this ploy to be absolutely foolproof: It would work perfectly every time you used it. Have we piqued your interest?

But suppose that we also told you that this tactic works only in very special circumstances that occur about once a year. Do you still want to invest the time required to learn it? Probably not. Although your ability to execute this particularly slick maneuver might brand you as a tough player in the eyes of your opponents, the fact that you might use it only once a year renders it meaningless. In the course of a year’s worth of playing, one extra bet doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It doesn’t even amount to a can of beans.

Making frequent decisions

Tactical opportunities that occur all the time are important. Even when the amount of money attributed to a wrong decision is small, it will eventually add up to a tidy sum if that error is made frequently. Always defending your small blind in Hold’em, for example, is a good example. You have to decide whether to defend your small blind every round — and that’s frequent. If you always defend it, you are investing part of a bet on those occasions when it is wrong to do so. At the end of a year, those mistakes add up.

Suppose that you’re playing $10–$20 Texas Hold’em, with $5 and $10 blinds, and you decide to always defend your small blind, even when you’re dealt hands like 7♥2♣. Just to keep this simple, we’ll assume that your small blind is never raised. Based on the random distributions of cards, you’re probably dealt a throwaway hand about one-third of the time. At the rate of 30 hands per hour, you’ll be dealt the small blind three times every 60 minutes. If you always call, you’ll wind up calling once each hour when you really shouldn’t have. That’s only $5 each hour, but after 1,000 hours of Poker, you’ve essentially given away $5,000. It adds up fast, doesn’t it?

Avoiding costly decisions

Playing correctly requires a great deal of judgment — the kind that comes from experience, not books. No matter how skilled a player you eventually become, you’ll never reach the point where you always make these decisions correctly. Don’t worry; that’s not important. Just err on the side of protecting yourself from catastrophic mistakes, and you’ll be on the right track.

Decisions that cost a significant amount of money when they occur, even if they don’t happen too often, are also important. If you can’t decide whether to call or fold once all the cards are out and your opponent bets into a fairly large pot, that’s an important decision. If you make a mistake by calling when you should have folded and your opponent wins the pot — that’s an error, but not a critical one. It cost only one bet. But if you fold the winning hand, that’s a critical error because the cost of that error was the entire pot.

Now we’re certainly not advising you to call each and every time someone bets on the last card and you’re unsure about whether you have the best hand, but deciding to call instead of fold doesn’t have to be correct too often to render it the mistake of choice. If the cost of a mistaken fold is ten times the price of a mistaken call, you only have to be correct slightly more than 10 percent of the time to make calling worthwhile.

Making more decisions and taking subsequent actions

Choices can also be important because of their position on the decision tree. Those that are first in a long sequence of subsequent choices are always important because subsequent choices are usually predicated on your initial selection. Make an incorrect move up front and you run the risk of rendering each subsequent decision incorrect, regardless of whatever else you might do. That’s why the choice of which hands you start with in Poker is generally a much more critical decision than how you play on future betting rounds. If you adopt an “ … any cards can win” philosophy, you have set yourself up for a disaster that even the best players could not overcome on later rounds.

Poker’s single most important decision

Choosing the right game is the most important decision you’ll encounter as a Poker player. Choose the wrong game and little else matters. Choose the right game and you might even make money even on nights when you’re experiencing a below-average run of cards.

Starting with standards

After you choose the best game and select the best available seat at that table, what’s important to winning play? Early decisions predicate subsequent choices, so deciding which hands to start with (your starting standards) is critically important.

It’s human nature to seek the best bang for the buck, and Poker players are no different. There are hands where the return on your investment is positive, and others that will prove costly in the long run. In the heat of battle, you don’t have the time to thoroughly assess your hand. You should have made these decisions long before you hit the table. That’s why standards are critical. If you incorporate solid starting standards into your game, you are light-years ahead of any opponent who hasn’t done this — never mind how long he’s been playing or how much experience he may have in other phases of the game.

Starting standards also provide a basis for deviation, but only under the right conditions. Those conditions are impossible to recognize — and capitalize on — unless you’ve developed standards and integrated them so completely into your game that they are second nature to you. Only when that’s accomplished can you hope to find those very few exceptions that allow you to profitably deviate from them.

Having hand selectivity

Hand selection is one of the most important keys to winning. Most people play too many hands. I’m not referring only to beginners. Some players have been at it for years, and the single most important flaw in their game is that they still play too many hands.

After all, the majority of Poker players are recreational players. They’re not playing Poker to make their living; they play to enjoy themselves — and much as they’d have you believe their goal in playing is to win money, that’s really secondary to their main objective: having fun. The difference between a player who has come out to have fun and another who is playing to win money is that the recreational player will look for reasons to play marginal hands and to continue playing them even when subsequent betting rounds are fraught with danger. The money player will look for reasons to release hands, avoid unnecessary danger, and dump speculative hands whenever the potential reward is overshadowed by the risks.

Being aggressive, but being selective

Winning Poker requires selectivity and aggression. Every top player knows that concept, and every credible Poker book emphasizes it. If you have any doubts, consider the need to be selective. Picture someone who calls every hand down to the bitter end unless she sees that she’s beaten on board. Her opponents would soon discover that it never pays to bluff her. Of course, every time they had the smallest edge, they’d bet, knowing that she’ll call with the worst of it. These value bets would soon relieve our heroine of her bankroll.

If selectivity is clearly correct, what about aggression? Consider the passive player. He seldom bets unless he has an unbeatable hand — and they don’t come around all that often. More often than not, you’ll find yourself in pots where you believe, but aren’t absolutely certain, that you have the best hand. Even when you are 100 percent certain that yours is the best hand at the moment, you might recognize it as one that can be beaten if there are more cards to come. This occurs more often than you might realize, and you can’t win at Poker by giving your opponent a free card. If they have to draw to beat you, make them pay the price.

GOOD GAMES NEED BAD PLAYERS

Would you rather be the best Poker player in the world at a table with the eight other players who are ranked second through ninth, or would you prefer being a good player at a table full of fish? Against a table full of weak players you’d win more money — much more, in fact, than the world’s best player could ever win against tough competition!

Here’s why. Most of the money you’ll win at Poker comes not from the brilliance of your own play, but from the ineptitude of your opponents. Never mind that you might be the world’s best Poker player. You’re not all that much better than those immediately beneath you. And your opponents, all of whom are world-class players in their own right, will not present you with much of a target to shoot at. Bad players are another story entirely. They offer huge targets. They call with weak hands. They stay in hopes of catching a miracle card. They believe that Poker is like the lottery — all a matter of luck — and it’s just a little while until everything evens out and they get theirs. And their bad play costs them money day after day.

The sad truth is that bad players simply don’t realize the extent to which they bleed their money away. The gap between the good player and the fool is infinitely greater than the gap between the world’s best player and any cluster of other world-beaters. It’s not even close. That mythical journeyman professional Poker player — the kind you aspire to be — may be a mile away from the world’s best, but 10 miles ahead of the fools.

Being patient

Patience is certainly related to the “be selective” portion of the “be aggressive, but be selective” mantra. Few players dispute the need to be selective. Nevertheless, most aren’t very selective about the hands they play. After all, Poker is fun, and most aficionados come to play, not fold.

When the cards aren’t coming your way, it’s very easy to talk yourself into taking a flyer on marginal hands. But there’s usually a price to be paid for falling off the good-hands wagon.

Sometimes it all boils down to a simple choice. You can have a lot of fun, gamble it up, and pay the inevitable price for your pleasure, or you can apply the patience required to win consistently.

GETTING THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE

Selecting the best available seat depends on the skills that your opponents have. Think about their playing style and level of experience.

Here are the types of players you want on your left:

  • Timid players, who are likely to release their hands if you bet or raise
  • Players who will call whenever you bet but will raise infrequently
  • Predictable opponents

Here are the types of players you want on your right:

  • Very aggressive players, especially those who raise too frequently
  • Skilled, tough opponents
  • Unpredictable players

Focusing on position

In Poker, position means power. It is almost always advantageous to act after you’ve had the benefit of seeing what your opponents do. Their actions provide clues about the real or implied values of their hands. This is true in every Poker game, and is particularly important in fixed-position games, like Hold’em and Omaha. In these games, position is fixed for the entire hand, unlike Stud, where it can vary from one betting round to another.

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