You won’t be able to play your best poker if you don’t know your strengths and weaknesses. Just because a particular play works well for one player, doesn’t mean it’s going to consistently be the best option or line for you to take as a poker player. Make sure you understand what some of your strengths are, and do everything you can to utilize them every hand you play. Conversely, minimize areas that will play to your weaknesses. This sounds simple in theory, but a lot of players attempt to fit their game in a mold of someone else, only to be left frustrated and lighter in their bankrolls.
Here are some examples of common weaknesses and strengths for Starting and Quitting Sessions (P)
players. Go through this list and rank how you think you do in each area based on a score of 1 to 10, with 10 being the absolute best. You can then formulate a plan on how you’ll improve in these areas if you deem them important to your overall game plan.
If you look at these primary aspects of poker you may notice a commonality in many of them. This is because there are really only three main areas of poker that permeate all aspects of the game. These areas are Aggression (either the lack of or too much), Rational deduction/logic (using incomplete information and math), and Psychological control/understanding (ability to control one’s psyche and understand psychology).
Once you look over your list, is there a theme occurring for you in certain areas? Do you need improvement in the aggression areas because you’re not being aggressive enough? Is there a need to control your emotions better so that you can have better psychological control? Let’s take the different areas and average them out so you can see what area is causing you the most concern, and focus on improving that area first.
Note: Post Flop Bluffing and Light Value Betting are counted in both the Rational Deduction / Logic areas and Aggression.
If you scored a 5 or less in this area, then you’re going to want to spend some significant time on these next sections. Nearly everyone in every major aspect of their lives tends to be on one extremity of a polarity or the other. Finding that “sweet spot,” that balance that can yield the best life results, is usually easier said than done. It’s that same way with aggression at the poker table for most players. Most players tend to be too passive, or a bit too aggressive.
The intriguing thing about poker though is that it’s ok to be too aggressive, and sometimes too passive as well, as long as you know and can properly anticipate how your opponents will react to your play. In general though, it’s much better to err on the side of too aggressive in poker, rather than too passive. This is why the mantra, “If you don’t know what to do, then bet,” gains credence. Because in poker, when a player folds their hand they give up 100% of their equity. It’s rarely a bad thing to bet, as opposed to checking, which can create a plethora of issues for you now or on later streets.
Aggression (too passive)
If you believe you are being too passive in your poker game, then you’re usually correct. It’s something a lot of beginning players struggle with. A lot of times it’s an aspect of a person’s personality which translates onto the poker table. If you’re a naturally more passive, person pleasing individual, it may be more difficult to put yourself in situations to be aggressive, and be betting and raising to make your opponents fold. If you believe this is the case, then the best thing for you to focus on isn’t about artificially trying to become more aggressive. Really the best way to improve in this area is to improve the math area of the rational deduction/math aspect of your game.
Since the goal in poker is to get your opponents to make the biggest mistakes possible, and get your good hands paid off as much as possible, understanding hand ranges and equity is paramount in being successful at poker. Once you understand hand ranges and equity really well, betting, checking, folding, and raising become much clearer with each decision you have to make. Each decision is like a mini-goal. You want to achieve each goal with excellence, and in order to do that you need to bet or raise when the hand ranges and equity dictate to do so.
When you are sure what the correct decision is in a situation, then you won’t lapse into your default psychology decision- making process.
For example, if you have a slight equity advantage with middle pair on the turn against an opponent’s hand range that will be mostly draws, and you check instead of bet, then you are not achieving your goal. If you get to the river and have almost no showdown value versus your opponent’s hand range, then you need to look to bet or raise in situations that make sense for a hand you can reasonably represent.
Looking at each situation from a more mathematical perspective and focusing on the goal at hand with each decision will make becoming more aggressive a lot easier to incorporate. You’re betting or raising because it’s the absolute best decision given the situation. Until this becomes nearly crystal clear, your natural lack of aggression and more passive personality will take reign in the decision-making process instead of the more mathematical / rational side. And if you don’t think you excel at math, hyper focusing on hand ranges and working on equity using an equity calculator will improve this area for you over time. It will take work, but if your goal is to make the best decision possible in each situation, this is the area that will most improve the problem of not being aggressive enough.
When you are unsure which play is the correct play in a given situation, you’ll lapse to your default psychology, which if it’s too passive you’re going to check too often. And as we said earlier, it’s better to default to being too aggressive then too passive in poker. Naturally aggressive people tend to do better initially at poker than naturally passive people, as long as they don’t go too over board. However, once you have the proper understanding, and know which decision is the correct decision, you won’t lapse into your default psychology.
Aggression (too aggro)
There are worse things in poker than being too aggressive. As said early in this chapter, if you’re unsure what to do, it’s generally better to bet than to check. That being said, being too aggressive can become a serious problem, especially if you’re playing opponents that know how to properly exploit it.
If it’s part of your game plan to be hyper aggressive in order to make your opponents react, and you feel you can properly anticipate and read their reactions, then you’ll likely have an adequate poker strategy to work from. However, if you’re commonly in situations where you aren’t sure how to react to your opponents, and you’re making lots of desperate bluffing attempts that are being picked up, then you’re going to want to work on bringing down your aggression.
Your goal should be to find that “sweet spot” in your aggression if you’re in too many situations where you’re unsure what to do once you take an aggressive action. Finding more balance in your game will make it much more un-exploitable if done correctly. One of the primary aspects you’re going to want to focus on is the psychological control / understanding area of your game. Asking yourself a few questions so that
you can gain more insight into why your game is so aggressive can help you achieve more balance.
- Do you get a “rush” from making aggressive moves at the poker table?
- Do you get an elevated since of self from being perceived as “table captain”?
- Do you enjoy watching others agonize over their decisions?
The bottom line with all of the answers to these questions is, is it your primary goal to achieve this high at the poker table by your aggressive play, or are you looking to win money? If your goal is to win the most money possible, then you’ll have to look for other areas of your life to achieve this same high, or look to balance your emotional state in several aspects of your own personal life. This is of course much easier said than done, but this is a key starting place for understanding and examining your motivations for playing the game of poker.
Rational Deduction / Logic
Since poker is a game of incomplete information, using our reasoning abilities to come to the most logical conclusions about our opponent’s hand range and intentions takes a lot of practice to refine. This is typically an aspect of poker that eludes most players, or they make some progress in this area, but never completely get “over the hump” and put it
all together. There are generally several reasons for this, and I’ll list out a couple of them:
- People can tend to be lazy, and don’t want to put the necessary work in to really have a complete understanding of this aspect of their game.
- Some success is made in this area, but then people are psychologically blocked from achieving a fuller understanding.
- There’s no definitive goal or learning plan created. Since there’s no one to keep you on task or create learning plans, people tend to take a scattered “shot gun” approach to learning, and never fully learn.
- People can be intimidated by the math aspect of poker, and block themselves psychologically from learning.
- Ego, and the need to be correct, can prevent people from considering different reasoning and approaches to how people think about poker, and thus limit hand range reasoning.
A lot of the above reasons are going to relate to each other. Being lazy (Point #1 from above), and not having enough drive to complete a goal (which in this case would be to become good at poker), is usually an indication of a block (Point #2 from above), but not always. Point #4, can also be a psychological block similar to Point #2. The bottom line is that if you know what you need to do to get better at something, but you’re not doing it, then you have a psychological block preventing you from moving closer to your goal (more on this later).
If you don’t feel you are currently blocked, but need to learn more about how to reason through situations so that you can improve your hand range estimates and decision making, then you need to formulate a learning plan first. Here’s my suggested learning plan for improving this aspect of your game:
- Get a poker equity calculator. There are several free ones on the market. You will need one that can
weight hand ranges, and is easy to use. I recommend using Ace Poker Drills Calculator, for many reasons, but it
also comes with a free odds and outs trainer if you need to improve that area of your game as well.
- After every session you play, review all of your biggest winning and losing pots. Replay them and especially pay attention to hands that go to showdown so you can see how people at your stakes are playing certain hands/situations. Mark any hands that you have questions about. Most poker tracking databases have an easy way to mark (usually by right clicking) a hand and saving it for later quick review. If you are playing live, make sure to write down or make any mental notes about hands you saw so you can review them and think about them later.
- While reviewing your latest session, go back to some very old sessions you’ve played and filter for any hands that have gone to showdown. Re-play as many hands as you can for the day, and hide your opponent’s hole cards. Grab a piece of paper and pen, or open up a notepad type application. On each street that is played, make a rough guesstimate for what you think your opponent’s equity is against your hand and write it down. On the river, make a guess at what you think your opponent’s top 3 hands are. Open up your equity calculator and put in your hand and the board and enter in what you think your opponent’s hand range is. Note what the calculator shows is the actual equity versus what your written guesstimate was. Do this for each street, and on the river reveal your opponent’s actual hand and see how close you were to the three hands you listed for your opponent.
- Take any hands you have questions about, and post them for review by other poker players on your favorite poker forum(s). Make sure to add any notes and reads you have on players, and your own thought process. Remember, it’s ok to be wrong, this is how you learn. If you don’t like posting on forums, call up some of your poker buddies, or talk to them on chat applications and ask their opinions. Get your mind engaged in these poker situations and make sure to pay attention to how your friends and others think about poker. This is critical in gaining insight into how other personalities reason through situations. It’s invaluable information. How you think about poker and situations will not be the same as someone else, and learning to reason through someone else’s poker lens is a key part of becoming really successful at poker.
- Answer questions by other poker players about hands they’ve played on your favorite poker forum(s), and/or ask your friends about tough poker situations they’ve been in recently. Give as many reasons as you can about why you think one decision or play is better than another. Don’t just say, “Hey, you should raise!”, and definitely don’t say, “What the hell are you thinking, donk?!? That’s an easy fold!” That approach is not conducive to learning and it won’t win you any poker friends.
- If there’s an area of the math part of poker that you know you struggle with, find material in the form of books, articles, and/or videos that will help you understand this aspect better. If you are unsure where to find such material, go on a poker forum and ask. If there are several areas that you know you struggle in on the math side, pick on topic a week or every two weeks, month, whatever time frame is realistic for your schedule, and commit yourself to learning about it. Do it one area at a time.
- Repeat steps 2–5 for your entire poker career. Never stop reviewing and analyzing.
Approaching poker in this manner and providing an outline for a lesson plan will help you stay on task and reach small attainable goals consistently. Understanding hand ranges, equity, math, and why opponents take particular lines will take some time to master. However, if you don’t have a plan set with goals, they will never be mastered unless you’re able to read minds or see through the backs of cards.
Parts of point #4 bear repeating because it’s an important point. Learning to reason about opponent lines and hand ranges has very little to do with how you would play a particular situation, and everything to do with how that particular person thinks and reasons through a situation. I mention this again because I can’t tell you how many times in my poker career I’ve heard good winning players say something to the effect of, “I can’t believe he’d play his hand this way, he lost so much value against my perceived range,” or “He can’t possibly have this or that hand, I’d never play those in that spot.” Yes, we agree you never would, or it may not even be the best way to play a situation, but it’s irrelevant. It’s all about how our opponents are reasoning, and you become better at that by understanding personalities and the psychology involved in poker.