Make One Decision At A Time

“I seem to look right into people’s souls sometimes. I don’t know what it is.”– Phil Hellmuth

We’ve got to take it one day at a time” is an expression that you’ll hear ad nauseam in baseball interviews, particularly when a team faces a difficult run down the stretch. While it’s a terrible cliché that doesn’t give a sportswriter much to work with, it’s a cliché for a reason. It’s the right approach.

When things don’t go well, you must have a short memory. Even when things do work out, you have to approach the next day with a fresh start. Yesterday’s momentum is only as good as today’s starting pitcher.

In poker, the corollary is to approach each hand with a clear mind. Once you start grouping the results from a number of hands into a session, a rush, or even a week of play, superstition and irrationality can creep into your game.

The result of one hand should have no effect on how you play the next. The only exception is when a previous hand is likely to affect how your opponent plays another one later. Just as a pitcher must remember what a batter saw in earlier at bats, you must be aware of what your opponent has seen from you. However, your basic approach should be to maximize your value with each hand.

This tunnel vision can be taken too far. Once you start viewing each decision in a vacuum, you’re no longer just filtering out the distractions. Now you’re filtering out valuable information. This information is vital to making the optimal decision on every street.

Just like the pitcher and catcher need to know what happened earlier in the count to decide what to throw on 1-2, you need to know what action led up to your current decision. Furthermore, you need to project how future streets will play.

A pitcher will set a batter up by throwing high and tight before dropping the hammer on the outside corner. You need to set your opponent up with your preflop and flop play before dropping the hammer on the turn and river. You need to set yourself up for profitable spots later in the hand instead of just thinking about the current street.

Long story short: have a plan.

By planning ahead, you can avoid those paralyzing big-bet scenarios. You’ll be prepared for them, because you already thought about everything that could happen. You won’t choke.

Back when live poker dominated the scene, Paul would look through his opponent’s eyes and into their soul, divining their exact two cards. Well, that was the idea anyway. Sometimes it worked better than others. Sometimes it was the way someone smoked (or didn’t smoke) a cigarette. Other times it was the way they breathed. Most of the time it was a verbal clue – more how they say something than what they

say – or how they put the chips in the pot. It was possible to reduce someone’s likely holdings to a much narrower range. In live poker, there is more new information on each street. Even when you’re out of position, you can look for someone’s physical reaction to the new board cards as they come out. This year in Vegas during the World Series, Paul was playing a pot heads up against another competent live player. As the board came out, both players locked eyes, waiting for the other player to react to the board first. It was funny and awkward, but also telling. That’s how we play live. Since there’s so much new information available from moment to moment, it’s harder to make a plan and easier to handle not having one. In fact, the plan is often simply to look for some new clue on each street.

A player may flop top pair with king-queen out of position and decide to check/call all three streets. But physical tells can come up that turn that call into a fold or even a raise. If you get used to waiting for new information, it’s easy to develop a wait-and-see attitude. You come to over-rely on information that may or may not show up. This attitude in a live game is somewhere between sort-of-bad and kind-of-okay. It’s awful in an online game.

Online poker provides much less new information from street to street. All you have is bet sizing and the occasional timing tell. Online, there’s no excuse for this wait-and-see attitude. What exactly are you hoping to divine over the interwebs? Playing on the computer gives everyone the ultimate poker face. Don’t sit around guessing. Have a plan. It can be flexible and you can, of course, take new information into account as you make future decisions. But armed with a plan, you will be better prepared for what is to come.

More than half of the “tough spots” that people post in forums could have been avoided or prepared for by having a plan. When you find yourself in one of these spots where you’re not sure how you got there and you don’t know where to go, ask yourself:

“Did I have a plan?”

Let’s look at a possible plan for a hand, developed from before the flop:

AQ♠ is a strong starting hand, but before deciding whether to re-raise or just call, you need to consider how the action will play out after the flop. You need a plan.

Let’s start by looking at what to do if you re-raise. Some opponents will call with hands that you dominate (like ace- jack and king-queen) and re-raise with hands that dominate you (like aces, kings, queens, and ace-king). This allows you to get away from your hand cheaply when you’re dominated, and play with confidence when your opponent calls and you flop top pair.

When HJ 4-bets before the flop, you should usually just fold. That result will be the exception, however. Most of the time, you’ll either take it down before the flop or your opponent will call the 3-bet:

On any flop where you have two overcards, top pair, or a backdoor flush draw, you should make a continuation bet of a little over half the pot. A few examples:

If you flop top pair or better and your opponent raises your flop bet, you should re-raise all in unless the board is truly horrific. A couple examples:

If your opponent just calls the flop on these boards, you should continue betting the turn and river for value as long as the board stays clean:

When you flop the nut flush draw, you should also plan to go all in if your opponent raises. You will often have two overcards to go with your already strong draw, and sometimes you’ll even have the best hand when your opponent has a weaker draw.

There are a few exceptions to following through on the flop with a bet. The primary examples would be monotone and three-straight boards such as the following:

While ace-queen suited is a strong hand, it’s a good idea not to always play super straightforward. Instead of raising, calling can be an attractive option. By calling, you can capture a c-bet from the hands in your opponent’s range that would have folded to a 3-bet, and still take some pots down when you whiff by check/raising almost any flop. You will have many strong semi-bluffing opportunities like the following:


You can also check/raise weaker draws like overcards with backdoor flush draws on dry boards. When the turn card gives you a pair or a stronger draw, you should bet again. If it’s a blank that’s more likely to improve your opponent’s hand, you should just give up:

You should also check/raise strong hands like top pair and better. In these cases, you should be willing to play for stacks unless your opponent calls the flop, and the turn and/ or river are extremely threatening.

Against very nitty players who will not pay off your check/raise with worse hands, you can check and call the flop, let him keep betting his weaker hands for value, and bet the river yourself if he checks the turn. Of course, against a player who will fold so many hands to a flop check/raise, you should plan to bluff even more than you usually would.

Finally, you can lead straight out on boards like KJ3♠ where you have a backdoor flush draw and a gutshot, and your opponent will fold a lot of underpairs. Some players will never raise that flop if you lead, so they may just call even with their sets, giving you a chance to spike the nuts and take their stack. If your plan is to get all in on the flop, then check/raising and leading out are not too different.

As you can see, a lot of thought goes into the preflop decision, thinking about how the hand will play out after the flop. We don’t expect you to do all of this planning at the table. There are simply too many possibilities to consider. You need to work on these plans away from the table so that when the hand arises, you already have a solid sense of what you intend to do. Think of yourself like a field marshal. You must pay attention to the developments in the battle around you. Responding quickly to minimize losses and maximize gains is facilitated by the planning you’ve put in ahead of time. Plot out your strategy so that you can deal with all the different circumstances you’ll face, whether things go well or things go not so well.

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