Basic strategic knowledge is critical for any Poker player. If you have no basis for making decisions about whether to call, fold, raise, or reraise, you may just as well play the lottery. Sure, you’ll win occasionally because everyone gets lucky now and then. Without strategy and knowledge, you’ll exercise no control over your destiny as a card player.
If you picked 100 Poker players at random and asked them about the objective of Poker, most would say something about winning the pot, but they couldn’t be further from the truth.
The goal of Poker — in addition to the enjoyment of playing the game — is winning money, not pots. If your goal were to win the most pots, that would be easy to do. Just play every hand and call every bet and raise until the bitter end. You’d win a lot of pots. In fact, you’d win every pot you possibly could. But you’d lose money. Plenty of it, and rapidly.
So the objective of Poker is to win money. And that means tempering enthusiasm with realism by being selective about the hands you play. There’s no need to play every hand. The very best players play relatively few hands, but when they do enter a pot, they are usually aggressive and out to maximize the amount they win when the odds favor them.
This is the essence of Poker: Anyone can win in the short run, but in the long haul — when the cards even out — the better players win more money with their good hands, and lose less with weak hands.
Because of the short-term luck involved, Poker is a game where even atrociously poor players can — and do — have winning nights. This isn’t true in most other competitive endeavors. Most of us wouldn’t have a prayer going one-on-one with an NBA basketball player, or attempting to hit a 95 mph big-league fastball. What’s more, we realize it. Yet most of us think we are good Poker players.
If you took a poll at any Poker table, the majority of players would rate themselves significantly above average. But that’s not the case. It can’t be. In the long run, good players beat bad players — though the bad players will win just often enough to keep them coming back for more.
It’s this subtle blend of skill and luck that balances the game. That balance also rewards good players who are realistic about how they assess their ability and that of their opponents. This chapter can help you develop those skills.
Knowing That Everyone Was a Beginner Once
In the beginning, everyone was a bad player — you, me, the guy winning all the money at your table tonight, as well as every player who has ever won the World Series of Poker. Once upon a time, Peyton Manning couldn’t throw a football, Alex Rodriguez couldn’t hit, and Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team. They were beginners too, and guess what: They were bad. Raw talent? Sure, they were blessed with an abundance of raw talent, but they all had to work long and hard to refine it.
So don’t bemoan your current skill level as a Poker player. You can improve, and you will if you’re willing to pay the price. Every good Poker player has been where you are now, and they’ve improved. To be sure, some progressed by leaps and bounds, while others have taken baby steps, one after the other, until they reached their goal.
Build a foundation first …
You can reach your Poker-playing goals. You probably have some innate potential as a Poker player, and if playing winning Poker is important, you need to build a foundation that will help you reach your potential as quickly as possible. Everyone who has progressed from neophyte to journeyman to expert to superstar shares one trait in common: They built a solid foundation, and that foundation allowed them to spread their wings and fly. And fly they can.
But in Poker, as in life itself, you can’t fly until you’ve built a rock- solid foundation and mastered the fundamentals. If you’re still grappling with fundamentals, you’re not yet ready to fly. But once those fundamentals are imprinted on your Poker consciousness and you can execute them instinctively, then, and only then, can you think about digressing from these basics and improving.
… Then you can improvise
When you listen to great jazz musicians, you’re hearing improvisation at its best. That improvisation, however, is based on a solid grounding of music theory. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk: These jazz giants are masters of improvisation, but their innovation and creativity stood on a platform of musical theory, knowledge of time signatures, an understanding of harmony, skill in ensemble playing, and an ability to use rhythm to underpin melodic themes and harmony. Without possessing these basic skills, innovation would not have been possible.
The price wasn’t cheap, either. It took lots of playing, lots of years, and more clubs, sessions, and after-hours joints than those musicians would want to count. But the product was sweet, free-flowing music: riffs that seem to possess a life of their own, springing unbounded from horns, keyboards, and strings, and filling the night with magic.
Poker is the same way. No matter which game you play, you have to know the basic rules before you can take risks (aka improvise). Your risks will be small at first, but as you succeed and build confidence, you’ll find yourself taking bigger risks — and you’ll see them pay off.