I'm going to be in San Jose playing at Bay 101 tonight. While I've played limit hold'em or tournaments there 25-30 times, I've only played $5 big blind no limit there 3 times. Since there is pretty regular churn in the player pool at any casino and the player pool there is much larger than at the Oaks, it's likely I'll be facing an entire table of players I've never played a single hand against. Before I play in a game that is likely to be composed of unfamiliar players I figured I'd take the time to give myself the advice I'd give to someone else if they asked me about this challenge.
1) Pay attention - They say the three most important things for a successful restaurant are location, location and location. Playing in a game of new faces, the three most important things are pay attention, pay attention, and pay attention. If you know 3/4 of the players in a game because you've played a dozen sessions against them you can get away with spacing out or checking your phone when you're out of the hand once in a while, but forcing yourself to watch every detail for at least the first hour is key.
2) Start a profile on every player - It's not OK to stereotype people in real life, but in poker that's where you have to start. Not every old white guy you ever play is going to be weak tight, but the vast majority of them will. I'm sure there is a 45 year old woman out there who wears $10,000 in jewelry and looks like she spent an hour on her hair who has a perfectly balanced three bet range, but I've never played against her. Of course some people will surprise you, but if you've already thought hard about how to categorize them in detail when they do something out of character that will jump out at you and stick in your memory for later. Thinking beyond appearance, general behavior is huge. Watching how someone handles their chips and cards is very telling. Even if the sound was off how long would it take you to figure out that Beyonce' is an amazing performer if you'd never seen her before? How about if we put me up there next to her for a duet? It would probably take about 10 seconds to figure out that Beyonce is amazing and less to figure out that I am not. Take a look at everyone, create a detailed set of initial conclusions and then adjust as the sessions continues.
2) Build the image you want - Understanding the way your opponents perceive you is huge. What snap judgements are they going to make about you based on your appearance and behavior? In old TV shows and movies either the hero or villain would often pretend to be an absolutely awful player until the key hand or situation would come up and then they'd pounce. In reality, it's much better for your opponents to perceive you as a threat than a soft spot. In fact one of the things that really screws me up is that under normal circumstances I know most players know I'm a strong, winning player. When I play new opponents sometimes either they perceive me as softer than I am or I start thinking that they perceive me as softer than I am even though they don't. Both of these are not ideal. The best thing for me to do is to play tight preflop for the 1st hour. That will usually get people started on thinking that I'm at least pretty good, and they also won't expect me to be loose post flop which I try to be.
3) Find the errors in your opponents frequencies - This is really the key to all winning in poker. If they call too much you beat them by making hands and betting for value. If they fold too much, you beat them by playing more hands and bluffing more. If that 45 year old woman with the hair and the jewelry three bets you, you can be pretty sure it's a big pair and fold. A more detailed example is most recreational players will bet an A high flop if they've raised before the flop 100% of the time whether they have it or not. That's not the optimal frequency. They do this because their opponents fold whenever they don't have an ace. That's also not optimal. Every situation on every street needs a certain amount of balance and if you don't have that balance it's exploitable. One hand can show you that an opponent is doing something that's exploitable so you better be paying attention so you don't miss it.
4) Don't force it - Playing somewhere new or where you don't normally play can be exciting. Getting all jacked up to play and then sitting down to a string of garbage cards can be tough to handle.
If things aren't going well, it's much easier to get the "What I'm doing isn't working" feeling than if you're in your normal game. Usually that leads to "Let me try this other thing!" when the situation doesn't really call for that other thing. Every next hand could be the one where you get a no brainer double up.
5) Be confident - These jabronis can't handle you!