Numerous strategies exist that can help poker players refine their key cognitive choices, and with any slight edge in the game being huge in 2024, we’ve taken a look at some of the ways you can take your decision-making in poker to the next level.
KEY MOMENTS WHERE THE PRESSURE IS ON
Every poker player worth their salt sits down at the table prepared to bring their A-Game, and in the key moments, make the right decisions. Not everyone can do that, of course, but the first thing to establish is what those key moments actually are. It is impossible to remain focused for a 12-hour day at the poker felt, so ascertaining what makes an important decision is vital.
Chess players often speak about focus being a movable scale rather than a binary ability that, like a switch, is either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Focus can be soft or hard in poker too. An example of soft focus might be the sort of spot where you’re not involved in a poker hand, but when the players who are reach showdown and have to display their hole cards, you make sure to look up from your phone and take note of these shown cards. Hard focus might be an all-in hand you’re involved in where either your stack or your opponent’s ends up being totally at risk.
Determining what should demand your total focus is a personal opinion, but it can often be summarized as a decision that has a big effect on your own place at the table or someone else’s. The biggest moments in your favorite poker shows are likely to tell you what those are. We’ll all remember where we were when Vanessa Selbst couldn’t quite find the fold with a full house in the first level of the WSOP Main Event against Gaëlle Baumann. We can probably all recall the first time we saw Erik Seidel’s call after Johnny Chan’s infamous ‘Look to the Sky’ in the 1988 WSOP Main Event.
The big moments require total focus. Would Selbst or Seidel have acted differently with a better ability to focus? Those hands are tough to formulate a cohesive plan of attack in and marginal when it comes to the final decisions, so it is unlikely. But unless you find yourself deep in an event you could win millions in, your own ‘hard focus’ moments are likely to be simpler – if you put yourself in the position to make optimal strategic decisions.
Emotional Control: Pre-Match Preparation
Every poker player must prepare for a poker tournament or cash game in the right way. For some, this will be a large bank of sleep to preserve their mental energy for the big moments. For others, such as Tight Poker columnist and former champion ultra-runner Dara O’Kearney, it could be invigorating the mind and body with a long run in the days before a major event.
Whatever your method, pre-match preparation to put your mind, body, and soul in the right place is vitally important. Poker decisions made by a tired mind will be lacking. Physical stamina is important late in days when events are won and lost or when the biggest cash game pots are scooped. Feeling comfortable and in the right mental state to execute decisions effectively is pivotal to making a profit in poker.
There are any number of ways of preparing yourself, but few are better than the old adage that you are the sum of two vital human basics – what you eat and how you sleep. Mastering a good routine in both respects is crucial. With nutrition and rest, the twin pillars upon which to base your preparation, how you plan for a cash game session, multi-table tournament (MTT), or live event is almost a case of trial and error. You can read about what others do, but your own gauge of how each process refinement affects your performance (short-term) and results (long-term) will be key.
I once asked an elite player who won a lot of money playing online poker how he prepared for a final day in a big SCOOP, WCOOP, or other such MTTs. He replied with one of the most unique answers I ever heard to such a simplistic kind of question. He said that around an hour before the final day – or any poker session! – kicked off, he would go out into his garden armed with a blindfold. He would scatter a selection of items in his garden and take a mental picture with his mind.
Then he would put the blindfold on and attempt to walk to the end of the garden, touch the fence, turn around, and come back to his back door. If he struck an object in his path, he would have to start again. When he made it all the way to the fence and back without striking any objects, he would remove the blindfold and be ready to play.
The Power of Mathematics
The 17-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth once responded to questions about his mathematical capabilities by confidently declaring that he knew the odds of any poker hand to within two decimal places. The answer may have owed a little bravado to the formative era of The Poker Brat, but there was an element of truth to it too. Hellmuth’s math knowledge was so good that his victory in the WSOP Main Event of 1989 changed the game and allowed those who focused on numbers to take incrementally large steps forward in the game of poker.
In this fresh era of GTO (Game Theory Optimal) play, mathematical ability is infinitely more important to this day. Poker, by its very definition, is a sum game that relies on incomplete information being interpreted by the players involved, and only by understanding the odds and probabilities of certain cards coming can you make correct mathematical decisions.
From push-fold charts to post-flop strategy, studying the numbers is often time-consuming and a difficult theory to immerse yourself in. Breaking it down into bite-sized pieces of advice to digest is important, as is taking in the information in a format that your brain responds to positively. From video training to strategy books, via tactics discussed on podcasts to online articles such as these, doing the work is vital, so make sure you do it well.
Adapting to Opponents: Examples of Key Decisions
Poker is full of tough decisions, but if you build up a list of questions in your mind ahead of those decisions approaching then you’ll be best prepared to deal with them when they come along. The first consideration you should make is towards your opponent, with the player more important than the cards you’re taking on at all times. Ask yourself how they are playing, whether they have been aggressive or passive and whether they are stepping out of character with their behavior in the current hand.
Once you have a handle on your opponent(s) emotionally, consider your own perceived image to them. Are they displaying any tells or behaving in a way that is dramatically different from their previously demonstrated patterns? Also consider your table position in relation to your enemy – then you’ll be able to appraise the situation in a more strategic manner and take advantage of any weakness.
Poker is all about gathering relevant information and making the best decision based on that data. Using logic, you’ll then be able to make that key decision with as much confidence as you can possibly have. From there, the cards will decide.
Being a Hero
Key decisions are often those moments where outside observers will look back on and say either ‘How did they make that call?’ or “What a great fold – how could they lay that down?’ Making the Hero Call or the Hero Fold is tough and will often be decisive in how your major result came around. Look at the past WSOP Main Events and you can probably remember an amazing fold or hero call that the champion made.
Making a big lay down is essentially laying down a really good hand when you have worked out that your hand is still beat by one that is even better. While it is hard to have any kind of strategy that declares ‘I’m going to make a hero fold/call today’ at the beginning of the action, you should certainly be confident that should it come down to it, you can make that tough decision. These often come from the gut, that part of you that just knows you’re losing or winning in a certain spot.
I once spoke to the great Sam Razavi, a British poker professional who has made a career making huge plays. In one particular tournament, he won solely the title and around $50,000 in prize money purely because he made one great bluff at a key moment. He’d worked out his opponent’s hand down to almost the exact cards and followed through on his gut feeling with total conviction.
Sam told me that gut feeling was really the accumulation of knowledge over time and your brain then telling you that for reasons based on cognitive ‘muscle memory’, you can make the right call. Should you be wrong, that supposedly impulsive instinct is then refined over time, and your gut feelings then become more informed, often without you being fully conscious of the thought process.
We’d all like to do such things but jumping across that ‘Execution Gap’ between believing we are doing the right thing then actually pulling the trigger is much harder than it sounds.
Taking on Tilt
Let’s talk about tilt. Not just in your own game, but in that of others too. Tilt in poker is reacting emotionally to a poker hand and letting that emotion affect the next hand or even several after. This is often associated with taking a bad beat. Let’s say you are all-in with pocket queens against the pocket sevens of a player with three-quarters of your stack in a big live event. As all the chips are committed pre-flop, another player tells the at-risk player with sevens that they folded a seven too. Then, a seven lands on the river, and you’ve lost a huge chunk of your stack to a one-outer.
That kind of bad beat could easily affect you thereafter. Down from possibly 200 big blinds to under 30, you’ll have to adjust your play accordingly and have fallen a long way back down the ladder despite playing the hand perfectly. Overriding the sense of justice is difficult, and you will need to strategize completely differently, possibly for hours or days of the event. Getting over this ‘tilt’ feeling is hard, but it can be just as hard if you go on a series of hands when you’re winning. Can you still play your A-Game and not dust off chips needlessly through a sense of overconfidence? It’s crucial that you do, but ‘Winner’s Tilt’ is a thing, having recently been referenced in Daniel Negreanu’s look back at why he had a losing 2023.
Getting a handle on your emotions is crucial to success at the poker table. One thing that many players don’t consider, however, is how to exploit this tilt in others’ behavior. If you notice someone tilting, either from winning a pot or losing one, make sure that you take advantage. Charge them more with your bet-sizing if they’re splashing around with newly won chips. Punish their loss-chasing mentality if they’ve been on the wrong end of a bad beat, particularly if it was to you.
It is pivotal in poker that if you are to have any success, then the greatest strategy is to separate the decision you’re making from the outcome of that action. Being as objective as you can while retaining an emotional balance is going to help you stay on the right side of tilt in your own mind and crucially, take the maximum in chips from those who are unable to do so.
Understanding negative triggers to your own A-Game and exploiting those weaknesses in others’ games is the optimal strategy when making key decisions. Being comfortable in those marginal moments can often come down to a ‘gut feeling’ that is refined over time by your own experiences at the felt.
Executing key decisions at the poker felt comes down to a focus – both hard and soft – on making positive decisions and not focusing on the consequences but refining the process of your decision-making skills. The 10-time WSOP bracelet holder Erik Seidel was coaching the comparatively inexperienced poker player and author Maria Konnikova.
When she told him about the decisions she was making and the result of the hands, he asked her to leave out the part where chips were won or lost. All that mattered was the decision, the process, the execution, the work. The chips will fall where they may, but if you keep improving your strategy in making key decisions, over time you’ll always win more than you lose.