Beginners at poker make a lot of assumptions. Some dismiss the game as pure luck. Others turn the game into something some complicated and arcane than only a prodigy born to play cards could master it. Still others try to boil the game down into one single skill or style of play. Add it to the list of games (like blackjack, pokies, keno, and video poker) with many myths surrounding it.
The real key to poker success is to master several separate disciplines, mix playing styles to keep your opponent off-balance, and process information faster and better than the other people at the table. And after staying focused while switching tactics, you have to remember that a healthy dose of luck is needed to make it all work. we seek to dispel your poker myths, but remember the next time you play, no one single lesson is going to suffice.
Luck plays a pivotal role in poker on a hand-to-hand basis. That doesn’t mean better skills won’t win out over a long period of time. Poker professionals exist because poker is a game of skill. They might get unlucky any given hand, or any given night. They might bust out of a tournament among the first wave of losing players. An opponent might catch a flop or give them a bad beat on the river. A pro poker player might even have a long losing streak of weeks or month. The professional might even go on tilt. That doesn’t mean their skills won’t take care of them over the course of a career.
Playing cards require some math to calculate your odds on any given hand. It’s isn’t complicated, but good players usually know a rough estimate of their chances of winning holding any hand. Being able to get a sense of your opponent, to know if they’re tight or loose, and passive or aggressive is important. Noticing their tendencies not only tells you whether they’re bluffing or holding the cards, but it also teaches you whether they’re likely to call your bluffs or fold when you show strength. Having insight into human nature and human psychology makes you a better Texas holdem player. Sure, you can misread a person or a situation, but some people exist who are good at these things, so they can make a living playing cards.
People see Gus Hansen on TV and assume they have to be super aggressive to win. The idea is you put your opponents under tremendous pressure by being aggressive all the time. Also, you get them to thinking too much when you’re aggressive in every situation. They won’t be able to guess if you’re bluffing or really holding the cards, because you show strength always. Force them to make the decision. Always come over the top. Always take the initiative, put them on the defensive, and you might put them on tilt.
The truth is, plenty of the best players are tight players, but tight/aggressive players. That means they are quite selective about when they play hands, but when they get in a pot, they tend to make raises, not calls. These players show strength, and people respect those players, because they have a reputation for playing strong hands. Many of the top players are tight, such as Dan Harrington or the late Chip Reece.
No one path to success exists. Poker genius comes in the loose/aggressive or tight/aggressive mould. A new player showing aggression all the time isn’t likely to know how to extricate themselves from tough situations, so they end up putting the pressure on themselves as much as their opponent. Many of these players go bust, trying to live up to some TV image only a few card geniuses could pull off. If you’re new to the game, I’d argue it’s better to learn the tight style, where you play mostly good hands. Start out playing sound poker and use that solid foundation to divert into wild and unpredictable play later. Play like a wild man from the start and you’re not likely to learn the game nearly as well.
One myth of gambling is a player needs to advertise their bluffs to get action on their strong hands. (See our Texas holdem myths page for more about this subject.) What this does is teach less talented players they should bluff more than they should. When bluffing, the point of your bluff should be to win the pot. If you get called and have to show your bluff, then let that be your advertisement. Otherwise, leave your opponents guessing. Most of your bluffs should have a reasonable chance at winning the pot. Never dump hands simply for the sake of showing you’re a bluffer.
Information is key in poker. You want to have more information at your disposal than your opponent. That means you give no more information to your opponent than you have to give. Make them pay for their knowledge.
Henry Ford said, “Genius is…a great capacity for hard work.” That’s true in most every field. People become great not just because they have talents. Genius is a combination of pure talent and the ability or willingness to improve their talents to near perfection. Great poker players aren’t simply born to it. They work hard to master their craft.
That’s why enjoying the game and having a true passion for it is so important, because in that passion lies the capacity for hard work. That’s why Mozart said neither intelligence nor imagination make a genius. It’s “love, love, love that is the soul of genius.” Being a great at Texas hold’em is something which should grip you, almost to the point of obsession.
Make no mistake: those professionals on television have worked hard to attain their mastery.
Don’t get wrong: reading your opponent can be the difference in winning or losing. Watch a 10-minute YouTube video by Mike Caro on picking up tells to get an idea what you can learn–and how you can learn–information from your opponents. It’s amazing what the pros know about body language.
That being said, winning at cards is not simply about reading your opponents. They say play your opponents and not your cards, but it’s really best if you do both. A lot of factors go into every decision. All that reading is going to work out better if you can calculate the pot odds and get into hands when you’re ahead more often. That’s not just about knowing what your opponent is thinking (and holding), but also knowing the odds that you’re ahead in the hand based on the cards you’re holding.