Thursday, July 20, 2006

What makes a good poker player?

When I'm at parties or other social functions and people hear that I'm a professional poker player, they always ask "god damn, how did you get to be so good looking?" Once we have that out of the way they also ask "what separates the pros from the amateurs?" Or "isn't it all just luck?" Or "Isn't poker just gambling? I thought you couldn't win at gambling? Doesn't the house always win?" After that about 40% of people say "is it all bluffing or what?" The first thing I tell them is in order to be a good poker player you need to WAY overuse parentheses in your blog (seriously, have you see how often I use them; it's ridiculous). The second thing I tell them is there are a ton of things that go into being a good poker player.

First and foremost you need solid fundamentals as far as strategy goes. You can get a good deal of this kind of information from books and articles, but it takes putting theory into action to really internalize good strategy. If someone raises in front of you before the flop and you have AQ, I can make a good argument for folding, raising or calling in most situations. It takes experience to identify the correct times to do each. Furthermore, just like there are many different kind of attacks in chess, there are many different general strategies in poker. Some players like to see a ton of flops in the hopes that they'll win a few big pots when it will be difficult for their opponents to put them on a specific hand. Others see very few flops and only proceed when they have strong cards. Neither is correct or incorrect and part of being a good player is finding the style that suits you best. Other parts of good fundamentals are knowing the odds of certain things happening and having some math skills. This aspect of poker is often over hyped and really anyone can learn this part of the game without too much effort.

Secondly you need a lot of patience. Poker can move really slowly and can get boring if you're not getting good cards. It's much more fun to play than to not play and fighting the urge to get involved with marginal cards is something every poker player faces from time to time. You've got to wait for good cards or wait until the situation is right to make a move with weaker cards.

What about looking for "tells?" In the movies you'll see the hero spot the villain's nose twitching every time he bluffs and his lip curl up every time he makes a full house. In reality this kind of thing never happens. And while everyone always talks about having a good poker face having a good poker body is really much more important. Looking at an opponent’s posture, what they do with their arms and hands and even their breathing is much more important (if your heart rate goes way up because you’re nervous about something it's really tough to control your breathing and look relaxed). How a player puts their chips into the pot is also very important. Do the throw them in violently or do they slowly push in a neat stack? Did they sit there for 10 seconds or bet right away? Did they say anything as they bet or were they silent? Most importantly you have to remember what they did before so you can interpret all off this information. The same action will mean different things for different players and you have to know who you're dealing with.

At the highest level people don't give off much information with their movements (and on the internet you can't see people at all) so you have to use betting patterns to make your best guess about what they have. Sometimes your hand is so good (or so bad) that it doesn't matter what the other players have and your only goal is to get as much money in the pot as possible, but for the most part you need to try to figure out what they have. There are 169 possible combinations of two cards (neglecting suits) and your job is to eliminate as many of those as possible. When the hand starts you have no information and each player could have anything. As soon as a player calls or raises your information gathering starts (if they fold we don't care about what they had) and at this point you can usually limit what they have to about 20 of the possible 169 holdings. After the flop you can usually narrow it down to something like 10 possibilities. Hopefully by the river you can narrow it down to just a few (or sometimes just one), think about the likely each possibility is and then you look at how much is in the pot and how much you need to risk to win the pot. In order to do a good job at narrowing the possibilities you need to pay attention to how the other players play in various situations so you can interpret (and predict for that matter) their actions on future hands. If you've read my blog I'm sure you've heard me say "I knew this guy didn't have X because of this and thought he might have Y because of this other thing." Being good at making these guesses based on you opponents past betting patterns is a huge part of poker.

On the other side of the coin is making it difficult for your opponents to guess what you have. The way that the other players at you table perceive you and the way you play is called your "table image." You have to understand how the other players perceive you and use it against them. If they think you're a wild and crazy player who's always bluffing then you'll do better to wait for a good hand and if they think your captain conservative you should try bluffing more. Sometimes it's important to make non optimal or non profitable plays from time to time in order to throw your opponents off and make it tougher for them to figure out what you have in the future. If they see you do something ridiculous they'll remember and will always have to consider that maybe you're doing something else ridiculous when they come up against you in a future hand. The easiest players to beat are the ones that are totally straight forward and predictable.

Having the right mindset is also important. Risking thousands of dollars on a card game can be some scary shit and having the fearlessness to do the right thing is very important. The best play is oftentimes the most risky (and scariest) and it takes guts to go ahead with it anyway. Confidence is also very important. You have to believe that the guesses you’re making are correct if you’re going to act on them. Good poker is aggressive poker and a lack of confidence usually manifests itself in timid play which is a recipe for failure. You can never be 100% sure of what someone has until the cards get turned over and sometimes you have to be willing to put all of your chips at risk when you’re 75% sure or 60% sure.

Having good focus is also important. It's easy to watch the game on TV while you're playing or talk with the casino employees or just space out, but if you do that it will be much more difficult to guess what your opponents have when you're involved in a hand. Believe me it can be EXTREMELY difficult to pay attention to the game when all you've been doing is folding for an hour and a half, but it's still important to do so.

Intuition also plays a part. Sometimes you'll hear players say "I don't know what he had, but I knew I was beat" or "It just felt like he was bluffing." Somehow your subconscious has picked up on something the other players are doing and it just gives you a gut feeling. Learning to trust those gut feelings is tough, but important.

Last, but not least on my list is emotional control. Have you ever seen a baseball player kick the shit out of a water cooler or throw bats onto the field? Or seen a golfer slam their club into the ground? Poker players have the same kind of reactions. Think about how you'd react of you had $1,000 riding on the turn of one card and you were a 10 to 1 favorite and lost? What if the same thing happened to you again a few hands later? You'd probably go bananas. When a poker player let's his emotions affect his play negatively it's called going on tilt and believe me it happens to everyone. Usually if things aren't going well the first thing to go is patience. Players on tilt tend to play more hands than they should. The next thing that comes is bluffing too much. A player on severe tilt will have a sense of desperation to get their money back as quickly as possible, but what happens is they make poor decisions and lose even more. But, among strong players tilt comes in more mild forms. It might be calling a raise with a hand that isn't quite good enough or raising when the situation doesn't warrant it instead of just calling. The thing I like about tournament poker is if something really bad happens to you, you're usually out of the tournament and can't make any more mistakes or do any more damage to your bankroll.

There are certainly other things that make a good poker player, but for my money these are the big ones. Now if someone asks you, "isn't poker all just luck?" you can tell them that it's not and have something to back it up. About 25% of the time I tell people that I'm a professional poker player they imply (sometimes not subtly) that I'm a big fat liar. Everyone's been taught from the time that they are small children that they can't win at any endeavor that involves betting. "The house always wins" is the mantra that goes along with this lesson. Of course it's true that casino's make money, but just because the house wins doesn't mean that you can't win too.


Eebster said...

How DID you get to be so damn good looking anyway?

And as long as we're pondering mysteries of the universe, how'd you get around that "Lucky in cards, unlucky in love" thing?!?

Jenn said...

I know how you got to be so damn good looking - you came out of the same gene pool I did! Duh. I have also often wondered how you got around the "lucky in cards, unlucky in love", thing, though, because I didn't. Unfair!

And who has the stones to call a 6' 5" guy a "big fat liar"?

In all seriousness, we are looking forward to the $10K tournament. We'll all be glued to our screens when the blogging begins.....

E. Innocent said...

And while everyone always talks about having a good poker face having a good poker body is really much more important. Looking at an opponent’s posture, what they do with their arms and hands and even their breathing is much more important (if your heart rate goes way up because you’re nervous about something it's really tough to control your breathing and look relaxed).

you ever hear of people taking beta-blockers, which block adrenaline in the body, or use other anti-anxiety drugs to get an edge in the game?