Through my observations playing in many many tournaments and cash games, and through reading of countless books and columns, there are a few points that one needs to always keep in mind.

Poker is like golf in that one can never master it one can become more skilled at it. There is always something to be learned every time you play. There is no black box that can be manufactured to help one master the game. You can become successful by learning basic skills, but to go to the next level, you must constantly refine the skills and always be willing to adapt. Doyle Brunson said that the problem he had with writing Super System is that everyone read it and whenever he played a game, his opponents played against him using his own strategies as outlined in the book.

In poker, if one is not studying the cards one needs to study the people. the dynamics of the human spirit is what makes poker fascinating. Therefore poker is much more than statistics. Blackjack is pure statistics. Poker is a microcosm of life. In my view, the best poker players are great students of behavioral psychology, sociology etc. They love to study people. The phenomenon of social interaction combined with money is the engine that powers the train. You can only get so good at poker by playing online. It is a world of difference between playing someone online and looking at them across the table.

The great poker players are the most consistent. They play their style successfully. They have amazing abilities to focus. To stay in the moment and to play within themselves.

Poker is generally straightforward. Meaning most of the time one should play the hands that have the highest probability of success. I have heard poker pros state that amateurs always overestimate and overvalue the bluff. In other words, pros bluff rarely. Dan Harrington says that one bluff every hour and a half is usually sufficient to keep others at the table wary and off guard. And they are surprised as to how often they get called down when it is obvious that they have the best hand. If you saw Jamie Gold at the end of the tournament at the 2006 WSOP he would tell players that they were beat and they would call him anyway. Phil Hellmuth states that he has built a career out of getting his money in the pot when he has the better of things. Daniel Negreanu says that he enters every tournament with the same goal in mind: not to do anything stupid. That means calling out of position steaming, overplaying hands, becoming too sophisticated in plays, showing off.

Pros have great control over their emotions. They know that they have no control over the cards but they do have responsibility over themselves. Chip Reese is a great example of this. Dan Harrington and Dewey Tomko are some others. They are completely unflappable. The emotional wrecks like Mike Matusow have very volatile lives and wide success variances. The great survivors in my view prosper because of their consistency.

Cash games and tournament games are diametrically opposed. What works in tournaments does not work in cash games. Cash games are infinite. In a sense, they never end. As long as there is money there is a game. Furthermore there is no time limit.

Tournaments have time limits. Not in the pure sense, but in the sense of blinds. The blinds continue to rise. As a result, there are separate acts to tournaments:

  1. The opening stage of the tournament. This is where one needs to survive and begin to accumulate chips. Straight forward play is rewarded. Reckless play is punished. You want to win the hands you contest and not show up second best very often. You don’t want to get into pots that become chip bleeders. The goal here is to stay in the game.
  2. Later, when positioning begins to play out. This is where the big stacks go after small stacks and knock them out of the tournament. I think of this like Highlander who gained power by vanquishing his opponent and then cutting off his head and collecting his life force and power. You begin to use your chips to your advantage to intimidate. If you have acquired a big stack, you will get to see some more flops. And as the players begin to tighten up. You can therefore loosen up. You are setting yourself up for the end stage.
  3. Toward the end, it’s all about aggression. There is only so much time left and to win or cash aggressive play is rewarded. Showdowns occur all the time. Good hands get beat by better hands, Junk hands are played all in. Bad beats jump up with regularity. Every possible scenario gets played out. Ultimately the champion is declared by outlasting the field through skill, cunning and a great deal of good fortune.

Success in poker is like success in life. It is attainable but not easy and it requires lots of work. That is why so few attain it.

Dean Tidwell adds:

I have played poker since allowed in the room at age 17 … 15 years later I can attest to 1 thing: all good players understand odds and therefore much of your success comes from feel, being around your opponent and understanding that most players have immense EGOS which can be used against them if the right comments are made. I have learned a few tips from an old timer — Mr. Hooks, who was Binion’s “man” in the older days, and even he went on losing streaks that lasted several months and had him questioning himself…


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