How to Be a Strong Poker Player
The difference between winning poker players and losing poker players can often be a simple matter of strength. Strong poker players are the winners. In poker, being a bully is a virtue.
Not everyone likes being a bully. Years ago, when I first started playing in the underground cardrooms in Dallas, I had a “crisis of conscience.” A young man was playing terribly, and he was probably only 19 years old.
I told my running buddy at the time (Todd) that I felt bad about taking his money.
Todd had a nice lecture prepared for me, but it was simple, too. Neither of us forced that dumb 19 year old to sit down at the poker table. And someone was going to take his money. It might as well be us.
I learned an important lesson about strength at the poker table that night, and I owe Todd big-time for that. Poker isn’t about being a good guy or a nice guy. The game itself is unfair. Think about the last time your pocket aces got cracked the next time you’re worried about fairness in poker.
The sad fact is that 90% or more of the poker players you deal with are net losers. They’re going to lose that money to someone. They might as well lose it to you.
The way to ensure that they’re losing that money to you instead of someone else is to become a strong poker player. This post offers some tips about how to do that.
1. Start Focusing on Getting the Biggest Edge You Can, Every Time You Play
Strong poker players focus on finding a great table where they have the best opportunity to take the other players’ money. They don’t play just any hand at that table, either. They wait until they’re in a great situation.
Strong poker players don’t concern themselves with luck, either. They don’t celebrate when they get lucky. They don’t complain when their opponents get lucky. They’re unfazed by the vagaries of luck, because strong poker players understand that poker is all about expected value in the long run.
Some of the ways you get an edge run counter to your moral programming. In real life, people frown on liars. In poker, if you can fool your opponent, you should. Strong players don’t concern themselves with being deceitful.
That doesn’t mean they cheat. It just means they’re willing to misrepresent their hands.
Strong poker players focus on the math, and they look at it in a neutral, impartial way. Don’t wish that a game is better than it is. Don’t wish that your cards are better than they are. Take each situation, analyze it coldly, logically, and ruthlessly, and play strong poker.
Strong poker players are never victims.
They victimize other players.
You can either be the predator or the prey. Decide to be the predator.
That starts by relentlessly focusing on getting as big an edge as you can in every possible situation.
2. Improve Your Poker Skills
Having the right attitude and mindset is only part of what makes a poker player strong. Without the appropriate skills, you can’t be a strong poker player. It just won’t work.
This includes mastering the basics. If you’re sitting down at a Texas holdem table, and you’re still unsure about the standard ranking of poker hands, you’ve lost before you’ve even started. That’s skill #1.
Skill #2 means understanding how and when the betting action works. If you’re confused about who acts when, you’ll never understand the importance of position.
Skill #3 is recognizing the nuts. If you can’t immediately look at a flop and know what the best possible hand made with that flop is, you’re in big trouble.
These are just the most basic skills, but they’re all skills that can be learned. Slightly more advanced skills include having starting hand requirements, understanding the role of aggression, and bankroll management.
You also need to be able to calculate pot odds and compare them with the odds of making your hand. It’s important to be able to read other players, and it’s also important to not give away information to the other players unwittingly.
Bluffing and semi-bluffing are also learnable skills.
These are all things you can learn from reading books, but you can also find any number of poker coaches and poker classes available online or in person. You can even buy DVD’s that explain some of these skills.
Learning these skills from watching televised poker is probably the wrong way to go about it, though. The tournaments they televise bear little resemblance to what really happens at the poker table. After all, these events are heavily edited to make them more exciting and interesting for the viewer.
3. Have a Bigger Bankroll
If you’re more comfortable with the size of your bankroll versus the limits you’re playing, you have a huge psychological edge over an opponent who is under-funded. This is why you should have strict bankroll management guidelines that you follow religiously.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious. If you don’t have a big enough bankroll, it’s possible to go broke just because of an unlucky streak. Remember what I wrote earlier about being unaffected by the vagaries of luck?
That’s not just a psychological thing. You need to be immune to luck on a practical level, too.
Of course, my friend Steve Badger pointed out to me once that if you’re a losing player, you need an infinite bankroll to avoid going broke. That’s why I mentioned having strong poker skills first. If you don’t know how to play well, you’ll lose your money regardless of how much you bring to the table.
Bankroll management in poker involves realistic thinking about how good the game is and how good you are. It’s easy to go broke at the poker table if you overestimate your skills or underestimate your opponents. Going broke isn’t always a matter of bad luck.
You need enough money for the game you’re in. You can find plenty of advice about how big your bankroll should be at certain levels, but if the buy-in for a game is more than 5% or 10% of your total bankroll, you’re almost certainly under-funded.
4. Become More Self Disciplined
If you lack the self-control to use these skills you’ve learned, you might as well not have those skills to begin with. Having excellent starting hand requirements doesn’t count for much if you play hands too far. You also need the self-discipline to get away from the hand on a bad flop.
You also need enough self-control to stay away from the table when you’re not at your best. If you play poker when you’re exhausted or drunk, you’re too weak. You’re giving your opponents an edge they don’t need.
Any time you get mad, you’ll start making bad decisions. It takes enormous amounts of self-control to avoid going on tilt. Some people can’t help it. I used to play with an angry chiropractor in Dallas that we’d nicknamed “Dr. Tilt.” I loved playing with that guy. After a couple of bad beats, he’d start dumping chips into the pot with anything.
If you don’t have the self-control to manage that anger, at least have the self-control to step away from the table when you’re angry.
It also takes discipline to move down in stakes if luck has taken its toll on your overall bankroll. Some people worry about their ego or their image. If your sole concern is how to get the biggest edge, you won’t care about that. You’ll only care about continuing to play in games where you’re sufficiently bankrolled.
And it does you little good to be an expert, winning poker player if you just go blow all your money on craps games, hookers, or cocaine after you quit playing poker. I’m just saying.
5. Position Is an Incredible Part of Strength
My buddy Wes has pointed out to me numerous times throughout our poker adventures together that I don’t pay nearly enough attention to position. Next to finding the weakest players, using your position to bully the other players is one of the most important aspects of being a strong poker player.
Position is just when you act. If you act 1st or 2nd (or 3rd), you’re usually considered to be in early position. If you act last, or next to last, or right before that, you’re in late position. In between, and you’re in middle position.
If you act after another player, you have an advantage over them, because you have more information than he does. In Texas holdem, if you have the button or are in the blinds, position becomes a little trickier, but not much.
If you’re in one of the blinds, you get to act last preflop, but on all the later rounds, you have to act 1st.
Generally, you want to tighten up when you’re in early position and loosen up when you’re in late position. This is entirely related to the lack of information you have in early position.
Suppose you’re in early position with 10J suited. You bet. 3 of the players behind you raise, re-raise, and re-raise again. When it comes back to you, you almost certainly have to fold, because someone—probably multiple someones—have much stronger hands than you do.
On the other hand, if you have 10J suited in late position, you can just fold in the face of all that action, without having put any money in the pot. And if the players who did get into the pot before you seemed reticent, checking and calling, you might be able to take down the pot preflop with a well-timed raise.
One of my biggest leaks is playing marginal hands from early position preflop, when I should be restricting my play to premium starting hands there.
Position in other games is different. In stud poker, for example, who acts 1st can change from street to street, depending on who has the best cards showing face up. In Omaha, acting last can be a big disadvantage for bluffers, because Omaha players often count on you bluffing when they know they have the best hand.
Winning poker is all about maximizing your strengths and shoring up or eliminating your weaknesses. Strength in poker has multiple facets. Some aspects of strength have to do with psychological aspects of the game, but others have to do with the nuts and bolts of the game.
You want to focus on eliminating mercy and compassion from your heart when you’re playing poker. You can’t be in the top 10% of players if you feel bad for the losers all the time. Want to exercise your compassionate side? Volunteer at your local church. Give money to charity. Go home and play with your kids.
But if you want to play poker, be ruthless, relentless, and merciless. Get the most out of every situation that you can.
Work on developing the skills you need to dominate the game. This includes nitty gritty poker skills like assessing the strength of your hand, calculating pot odds, and reading other players. It also includes learning how to manage yourself and your emotions.
Finally, make sure you’re playing with a big enough bankroll and that you’re paying close attention to your position during the game.