Ten Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your Poker Game
If you hunger to become a better poker player than you ever imagined, here are ten things you can take to heart, and every one of them will improve your game.
1. Know the Numbers: You can’t expect to be a consistent winner in the long run without learning, using, and understanding poker’s mathematical parameters. If you’re playing hold’em and flop a four flush but don’t know the probability of completing it, you won’t have any basis for deciding what to do when it’s your turn to act. Without a basic understanding of probability, how will you know whether calling, raising, or folding is a play with a positive expectation? Finding positive expectations is the essence of winning poker, yet it’s no more complex than recognizing situations that will show a profit if they could be replayed time and again.
Since poker has a large element of short-term luck, it doesn’t matter whether any given effort is successful. What does matter is making decisions that have a long-term positive expectation. Imagine you’re faced with a $20 call into a $100 pot, and the odds against making your hand are 3-to-1. If you repeated this situation 100 times, you’d expect to lose $20 on 75 of those occasions, for a loss of $1,500. But the other 25 times you’ll win $100, and that adds up to $2,500. Your net win of $1,000 ($2,500 – $1,500) is what’s important—not whether you won or lost any particular hand. If you divide your $1,000 win by the 100 times this situation occurred, you’ll see that each correct decision was worth $10 to you in the long run, regardless of whether you won $100 or lost $20 in any particular encounter.
Here’s some good news if you dislike math as much as most of us. You never have to do the arithmetic yourself. Many poker authors have summarized the odds covering commonly encountered hold’em situations, such as flopping a four flush or four to a straight, and all you have to do is learn those odds, compare them with the money in the pot, factor in any implied odds that stem from additional money you figure to win on subsequent betting rounds if you make your hand, and you’re in position to decide if you should play on, or save your money for another time.
2. Know Your Opponents: How many times have you made a strategic move that’s doomed to fail because you chose the wrong opponent—like trying to bluff someone who’s a veritable calling station? It won’t work. Even so, we do it far too often despite our better judgment.
Knowing your opponents requires observing their actions at the table, analyzing their decisions, and examining the choices they make. Do they play every hand? Do they raise with hands that don’t warrant it? Are they rock-tight? You should find it fairly easy to get a read on most players within a half hour or less. But you have to pay attention, especially when you’re not involved in a hand. That’s the very best time to observe your opponents. It’s like looking through a one-way mirror: You can see them, but they can’t see you. When you find yourself waiting for a game—online as well as in a traditional casino—watch your opponents-to-be, so you can adjust and temper your game strategies to their play before you join the table.
3. Keep Your Ego Out of the Game: While this is a lot easier to say than do, strive to never, ever let your ego control your play. Never mind that someone is a jerk or got insanely lucky and put a bad beat on you. It does no good to personalize it, even if the perpetrator looks you right in the eye and howls like a banshee while raking in your chips. The minute you decide to “…get him,” you’re sure to miss other opportunities and probably squander some chips chasing him down. If the old adage, “Living well is the best revenge” is true, then playing well—and walking away with a few racks of chips—is a giant step in that direction.
A raging, out-of-control ego can destroy a poker player. When it comes down to comparing one world-class player against another, they all know their stuff. It’s never a case of one player having a trick up his sleeve that none of his opponents have seen before. What usually happens is that in the long run, when the cards figure to break even, the winner is usually the thinking player who refuses to allow his vanity, his ego, or his emotions control the decisions he makes at the poker table.
Keeping your ego out of the game is as easy or difficult as you choose to make it. And it’s entirely up to you. Either succumb to your emotions or decide now, once and for all, that your head will rule your heart, at least where poker is concerned.
4. Keep Records—Even When It Hurts: Without keeping records you won’t know how much you’re winning or losing in the long run. Any player who doesn’t keep records deceives him- or herself, and to some degree this is another manifestation of allowing one’s ego to get in the way of sound decision making. It’s poker’s version of living in denial. Most players will tell you they’re life-long winners. But we all know that’s not true. The next time someone brags that he’s a life-long winner, inquire about his record keeping. If he doesn’t assiduously record wins and losses, more than likely he’s seeing only what he wants to—and more often than not, it’s just an illusion.
Few things are more painful to a poker player than recording a big loss in a notebook. But it has to be done because our minds are blessed with an endless capacity for self-deception. One of the unsung features of internet poker is that your bankroll will reflect the aggregate results you’ve achieved at the table, like it or not. While you may not have any idea about how much you’re winning or losing per hundred hands played online, all it takes is a click or two to see whether your bankroll is growing or shrinking. If it’s steadily heading south, no amount of self denial will be able to convince you that you are beating online poker when the sad truth is that you’re not.
5. Choose the Best Game: Much as we’d like to believe otherwise, most of our winnings come from opponents’ stupidity, not the excellence of our play, and it only makes sense to choose games with weak opponents. A game full of players who call too often but are reluctant to raise with strong hands will do fine. After all, if you can’t beat frequent callers, whom can you beat?
Aggressive games, the kind filled with players who raise too often with hands that don’t warrant it, are filled with opportunity for skilled players too. But these games are volatile, and rapid, bankroll swings are commonplace. Some players don’t enjoy this degree of volatility, and it often takes them right out of synch. If these swings seem intense in live games, they are exacerbated online because far more hands per hour are played on the internet than in a traditional casino.
6. Be Nimble: Every poker player wants to win. But willpower is not enough. In fact, too much willpower may even be detrimental to one’s game. Poker requires deftness—nimble feet, as it were. To quote Muhammad Ali, you’ve got to “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.”
Poker’s not like those “World’s Strongest Man” competitions that fill television’s sports programming hours when no major events are being contested. Will power drives those guys, and strong as they are, it’s often a game of inches and the force of one’s will decides the outcome of many of these events.
But in poker the will to win?that unmitigated desire to drive one’s self to the wall or even through it?often leads players to bad decisions. Poker players don’t have to play every hand, or even most of them. They have the luxury of deciding which hands to play, and because of that it’s brains before desire, judgment before will, and knowledge before power.
But even knowledge alone isn’t enough to get you there. Success demands thinking, and thinking at the poker table in the heat of battle can be enhanced by preparation. It’s preparation for winning. How you think about the game, and what you think about, can make all the difference between winning and losing in the long run, regardless of how deep one’s knowledge base may be.
If you are new to poker, or if you’ve never really studied the game or taken it seriously, your task is clear: learn the basics and learn them cold. It’s not all that tough nowadays. Gaggles of books and scads of online poker forums are aimed at improving your poker game. While some are better than others, if you’ve never taken a systematic approach to improving your poker and want to change your losing ways, pick a book, any book, and start studying. Even if you get just one good suggestion from it, you will have gotten your money’s worth.
If you know what you ought to be doing but you’re just not able to do it, you’ve got a much tougher row to hoe?one that usually means making behavioral changes while ridding yourself of learned habits and old paradigms. If you have the knowledge but just can’t seem to hit the target when you pull the trigger, you’ve got a know-how problem, and preparation is often the key to unlocking this door. Knowledge plus preparation equals know-how, and that equation provides the deft and nimble skill it takes to win at poker.
7. Expect Difficulties, But Build on Small Accomplishments: You will succumb to all of your flaws as a poker player during the period you are struggling, growing and reaching for a higher skill level. Every top-notch player struggled to reach the level of success they’ve achieved, and you’re going to have to do the same. Even the best players struggled, went through hard times, and periodically lost all their money. But they also got up when they were knocked down. That alone differentiates them from so many other wannabees who take a hit and quit without fighting, even before they’ve given themselves a fair shot at determining whether they have the stuff required to succeed at this game.
8. Persist: If you study hard, put into practice what you’ve learned, and integrate these strategies into your own style of play, you’ll find yourself improving. Success builds upon itself, so don’t let small setbacks turn you around. If you play poorly today, there’s no need to dwell on it. Just correct it tomorrow and move on. Keep moving forward. The saying: “Ninety percent of success is just showing up” suggests that you must sustain to succeed. Keep playing, keep practicing, and keep building small successes. Each time you reach one of your goals, savor the moment, but only briefly. Then set new goals. If you do not consistently move forward with your own game, you are probably moving backwards in relation to your opponents. The best poker books will teach you how to talk the talk. You’ll have to learn to walk the walk on your own!
9. Have fun: Enjoy yourself. After all, your poker time is discretionary, and poker is only a game; it’s not life and death. If you cannot enjoy yourself when you play, you’d probably be better off finding a different outlet for your time and money.
We can all spend a lifetime working on these suggestions because there’s always room for improvement. The best time to do this is right now and there’s never been an opportunity like the one we have today. New players enter cardrooms and casinos every day, and many of these players really lack the skills to compete effectively. If you’re learning poker and take the game seriously, you are probably a better player right now than many of your opponents. But as the poker craze matures you can expect to see less of a knowledge gap between players. This is a great time to be learning poker simply because there are so many new players who are no more experienced at the game than you are.
10. Commit to Excellence: Do you want to be a great poker player? It’s easy. Just take the pledge. Commit to greatness. Declare your excellence tonight. Start with the next hand you play. Visualize yourself as the greatest poker player ever—and act accordingly. While it does not take long to make changes, it can take forever to maintain a change once you make it. People who stopped smoking twenty years ago have told me they still get a craving for cigarettes today, so maintaining change is obviously tougher than making a change in the first place. Nevertheless, changes of the most dramatic, fundamental and far-reaching sorts, can be had instantly and made this very minute. Take the words of those Nike advertisements to heart. Just do it.
You can achieve excellence in a heartbeat, and you can do it today. If you want to be a winning, excellent player, go ahead and do it. It takes no time at all to make this change, but it will take forever to maintain it. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult. The choice is yours.