Psychology of a Winning Texas Holdem Poker Player
Recently someone asked me if I had to pick a single thing that made the difference between the few winning Texas holdem players and everyone else, what would it be?
My first thought was experience, but I quickly discarded that idea. I know plenty of poker players with decades of experience who aren't very good.
The second thing I thought of was dedication. Most good players are dedicated, but this didn't quite sound like the correct answer either. But it felt like I was getting closer.
Then I thought about how almost anyone can learn the mechanical parts of poker well enough to eventually be a winning player at the low levels. But if they want to be a winning player at the higher levels they have to add something beyond mechanical ability.
When I talk about mechanical abilities I'm talking about the rules, learning which starting hands can be played and which ones can't, how to figure outs, how to use pot odds, and just about anything else you can learn from your average poker book or decent poker strategy web site.
What I finally realized was the thing that set the best players apart from the majority of poker players was the psychology involved with the game.
Don't get scared or think about leaving because I mentioned psychology.
I'm not a psychologist and we aren't going to jump into the deep end of the pool when it comes to your mind.
What you'll learn is how to use your mind to move from a below average or average poker player to a winning poker player.
Once you master all of the mechanical things I mentioned above you can start using the psychological side of the game to improve your play.
Decide to Be a Winner
Though this sounds simple, the truth is this is the biggest step you can ever take to becoming a winning Texas holdem poker player.
You have to decide to be a winning player.
I'm sure many players who read this think it's a silly thing to say, but the key thing to remember is that most players aren't very good. Only a small percentage of poker players are good players who consistently turn a profit.
Everyone else is either too lazy or focused on other things to become one of the best.
Do you really want to be a winning poker player?
Are you willing to do whatever it takes to become one of the best?
It's fine if you just want to play for fun and if you decide other things are more important than winning at the poker table.
Most people would decide their family was more important than being a winning poker player. Does this make them a good or bad person? It's not for me to judge.
Do you have to pick poker over your family in order to be a winning player?
Of course you don't have to forgo a family to win at poker. Many of the best poker players in the world have families.
But you probably need to dedicate most of your waking hours when you aren't with your family to becoming the best you can be.
If you truly want to be the best poker player you can be, ask yourself the following question and answer it truthfully.
Are you doing everything in your power to improve your results?
What about the television show you watched last night? How did it help you win more at poker? How many times did you really need to check your Facebook page or your email?
I challenge you to make a decision right now.
Do you want to be the best holdem player you can be?
Have you decided to be a winner?
If the answer is yes, welcome to the club. You probably don't realize it yet but by simply making the decision to be the best you can be you've taken the biggest step.
Now all you have to do is keep your new decision in the front of your mind and follow through. The rest of this page will help you develop a plan to improve and help you see some different areas where you can improve.
Once you've made the decision to get better you need to dedicate yourself to your new plan.
It might seem like this is part of making the decision, but I always separate the two things in my mind. It helps me cement any new decision and plan and helps me follow through.
The first step is making the decision and the second step is dedicating yourself to doing whatever it takes to make your decision a reality.
If you're truly dedicated get something to write on and a writing utensil and start putting your plan in writing.
At the top of the page write the following sentences.
Don't skip this step. You might think it's foolish, but there's a sort of magic that happens when you write things down. They get ingrained deeper into your mind.
The combination of deciding, dedicating, and writing along with follow through will make you almost unstoppable.
As you read the rest of this page start outlining a plan on your paper. Then go back over this page and your plan in a day or two to see what you might have missed or how new ideas present themselves.
Then make a final plan and get started right away.
Always Be Thinking & Always Be Studying
The next two steps go hand in hand as they're directly related.
You need to always be thinking about Texas holdem.
Think about the hands you recently played where it turned out you made the wrong decision.
It's important to realize that the outcome of the hand has nothing to do with whether or not you made the correct decisions during the hand. Your job as a poker player is to make the most profitable decision in every situation you can. The results always take care of themselves in the long run as long as you make the right decisions.
If you're in a situation where you'll win 70 out of every 100 times and turn a long term profit you should strive to get in that situation as often as possible. The 30 times you lose don't make the play wrong.
Analyze every hand as you play and remember the ones where you make mistakes. Keep a small notebook or index cards with you if you need to make notes to remind yourself of the plays later.
Visualize how the hand played out, how you made each decision, and how you can make a better decision next time.
You'll find that many situations are impossible to predict, but you'll also find that many situations will repeat themselves and by working through them after the fact you can be more prepared the next time you play.
You also always need to be studying Texas holdem. This goes a bit beyond the previous step.
While it's important to always be thinking about poker, you also need to be a student of the game. You need to read good strategy books and good strategy web sites like this one.
You also need to study good poker players to learn what they do and study bad poker players to avoid doing what they do.
Pay Attention – Always
Common advice is to pay attention to the other players at the table, even when you aren't in a hand. The best holdem players extend their awareness beyond this level.
You also need to pay attention to how the players are talking and acting to see if you can pick up on anything you might be able to use in a hand. You also need to be aware if two or more players are acting strangely and may be working together to cheat.
Do you watch the dealer to make sure they shuffle and deal properly, if they collect the correct amount of rake, if they flash cards as they deal, or if they're influencing the game in any way?
What about the people around the table? Is there anyone who could be sharing information with someone at the table or doing anything else suspicious?
I'm not trying to make you paranoid, but if something is going on you need to know about it. If the dealer is flashing cards when they deal you need to know this information because you can be sure that other players may be using it.
Once you train yourself to always be thinking, studying, and paying attention your poker game will improve. At first it may be difficult to concentrate all of the time, but eventually you'll find it stimulating if you don't give up.
Though it's a side effect, you'll also find it helping in other areas of your life. By being aware of more things you wake up to things you've missed or ignored in the past.
Visualize the Entire Hand at the Beginning
When you're preparing for the next Texas holdem hand you should already be analyzing information before you even receive your first card.
Who are your opponents, how do they play, are any of them on tilt, how deep are their stacks, what position are you in, how does the table view your playing abilities, who won the last hand, etc.?
When you receive your cards visualize how every action you could take may play out. Try to prepare for every possible outcome of every decision before it happens.
You won't be able to cover every possible outcome of some hands but you'll train your mind to quickly go through different options and you'll be better prepared to handle anything that comes your way.
You'll also be the only player at most tables that bother to think about anything before it happens. This fact alone gives you an advantage.
Protect Your Bankroll
This might seem a bit strange for a psychology of poker page, but I've seen good players change the way they play because of bankroll fluctuations. Any time you alter your play based on anything other than long term profitability you have a problem.
The basic fact is you have to have a playing bankroll in order to have a chance to profit at the poker tables.
If you lose your bankroll you can't play.
You also need to understand that even the best players have losing sessions and downswings. You could lose a great deal of money in a short time if you hit a string of poor decisions or even if the correct plays aren't leading to wins right away.
If your bankroll gets low enough that you have to worry about it when deciding how to play a hand you need to play at a lower level.
Never let pride stand in the way of moving down a level to rebuild your bankroll.
You have to protect your bankroll just like it was your life, because it's your poker life.
Building Your Data Bank
When you play online Texas holdem many poker room's software systems have a feature that let you make notes about the other players at the table. If you play long enough and keep notes you'll frequently find players at your table that you have information about that you can use to help you make decisions when they're in a hand with you.
This is a good way to improve your results, but you also need to be building your bank of data when you play any kind of poker, including at a land based poker room or casino.
You need to always be gathering information you can use in the future about any opponent you face. It's even a good idea to remember things about good and poor dealers.
I can't remember everything, but by writing things down and going over it from time to time it helps me recall things when I need them.
Most players make the mistake of thinking bluffing is about the cards and / or the current situation.
Bluffing is about you and your opponent.
Your opponent has to be smart enough to realize they might be in a losing situation before they can be bluffed. A popular saying is they have to be smart enough to fold. This means that some players don't pay enough attention to realize they might be beat, so they won't fold.
You also need to control how your opponent views you and your poker abilities to make a good bluff.
Good poker players don't bluff often. They try to train other players that they always have the best hand when they bet, so most of the time they do have a strong hand.
The more you bluff the more times opponents will call you with any kind of hand.
Of course some situations are better than others for a possible bluff, but always remember that bluffing comes down to you and your opponent and you'll start being more successful.
Should you bet big or small when you bluff?
It depends somewhat on the situation, but if a player is good enough to fold to a good bluff they're also good enough to realize a smaller bet may be a trap. But you run the risk of making the pot odds so good with a smaller bet that a good player may have to call.
It's a fine line between under betting and over betting, but in my experience it's almost always better to slightly under bet than over betting.
Tells are somewhat like bluffing. Many players aren't able to read tells and aren't paying enough attention to give or read accurate tells.
This doesn't mean you can't use them when players are sloppy or develop false ones to use against your better opponents.
When you play at the lower levels you can look for tells but you don't need to risk much on them because all you have to do to play winning poker is stick to solid smart play.
At the middle levels tells can be profitable, but you still shouldn't waste too much time on trying to fool anyone.
Once you start playing at the higher levels tells can be quite valuable, but you also run the risk of falling for false tells. Many players at this level are good enough to pick up on tells so you can try to develop false tells, but make sure they're worth the effort in long term profit before dedicating too much time and effort to them.
One of the best ways to avoid going on tilt was covered in the visualizing the hand section, but it's important enough that I wanted to mention it again.
The more you understand how a Texas holdem hand can turn out the more prepared you are to mentally handle anything that can happen.
Tilt is at the core of the psychology of poker and can quickly turn a winning session into a losing one.
Allow me to let you in on a little secret.
Many of the best players in the world battle tilt just like you and I. The key is they tend to be able to handle it better and faster than most players. Most of them are good enough at dealing with tilt that other players don't even realize they're doing anything differently.
The first thing you need to do is vow to never make decisions based on anger or while you're in danger of being on tilt.
If you can't make smart decisions you need to quit playing until your mind gets straightened out.
Smart players also pay attention to other players to see if they might be on tilt. When you see another player on tilt it can be quite profitable.
Much like your bankroll, if you lose your health you lose the ability to play poker.
Holdem poker players tend to sit for hours and hours, which happens to be one of the unhealthiest things you can do. Many players also don't eat well, which compounds the problem.
Your mind works better when your body is healthy so you need to be aware of your health and how you can improve it.
You need to get up from the poker table or the computer and take a short walk at least once an hour. It's also helpful to exercise on a regular basis and eat a healthy mix of foods.
As you age you also need to see a doctor on a regular basis to make sure you catch any possible problems before they get serious. Many medical issues are fixable if you catch them early, but if you ignore them they can reach a point of no return.
The bottom line is your health is an important part of your poker playing repertoire and can't be ignored if you want to maximize your long term profit.
This is one of the few things on this page you don't have to use. But it's also one of the things you can use to help you become a better poker player if you open your mind to the possibilities.
You don't have to attach meditation to a religious exercise or meaning to get the benefits it has to offer.
Learn to be still and calm your mind. Once you reach a calm state you can use the time to let your mind get in a good place that lets you play the best poker you can or you can use it to work through different situations you've been involved with at the tables.
Every player is different and mediation works better for some than others, but if you've never tried it, consider giving it a shot to see if you can use it to improve your play.
Once you fully grasp the importance of your mind to your outcomes at the poker table you'll understand how important it is to keep it sharp and this is one option to help.
A Few Big Hands
One of the areas where true professional players and amateurs differ is in their understanding of how you don't have to win more pots than other players; you need to win more money.
Ask yourself the following question.
Would you rather win 20 pots for a total of $1,000 or 2 pots for a total of $1,500?
Of course you want to win more money, but many players seem to play like they need to win more pots, no matter what it takes.
When you play no limit and pot limit games you can often have a winning session while only winning a few pots. If the pots you win are large and you do a good job of avoiding investing too much in losing pots you can be profitable by focusing on big hands.
By learning this lesson it can help you remain patient while waiting for the perfect situation to win big.
The best no limit Texas holdem players tend to understand this well. They understand that when they can win a big pot it makes up for what seems like hours of folding trap hands.
Of course you can win money by winning a series of small pots, but the key is not risking too much to win the small pots.
Poker is one long session that lasts a lifetime. You don't have to win a pot in the next hour in order to turn a profit.
Luck – The Short Term Variant
Short term variance is what most poker players call luck.
Winning holdem poker players understand that nothing that happens at the poker table involves luck.
If you think something is unlucky while playing poker you're going to have a hard time being a winning long term player.
Everything is based on simple math. You may lose a decision now, but as long as you made the right decision you'll profit in the long run.
It's acceptable to act like you believe in luck with players who aren't very good. You can even talk about good and bad luck at the table, but never make the mistake of believing it.
The Smallest Extra Edge
Winning Texas holdem poker players understand that the game is a combination of thousands of small parts. Each small part is a chance to make money or lose money in the long run.
Every starting hand in each position in every game made up of a collection of players and personalities and stack sizes can be played for a profit or it can't.
No poker player can master every little aspect because no one ever has a complete ledger of information available to make the best choice every time.
But the best players make the best choice in every situation more often than other players.
This is the core reason they understand that every small edge they can gain is important. If they can improve their game in any small way they can magnify their long term profit.
A ring game player is able to win $100,000 a year at the age of 30. If we make the assumption that his top level playing days are going to cover the next 30 years and everything else stays the same here's how much small changes are worth over that time.
If he can find another 1% edge it adds another $30,000 over the next 30 years to his profit.
A 3 % improvement totals $90,000 and a 5% improvement is $150,000.
10% is worth $300,000.
Now let's look at how these numbers are magnified even more if the player is winning $300,000 a year.
1% is worth $90,000, 3% is worth $270,000, 5% is worth $450,000, and 10% is worth $900,000.
Of course winning players tend to increase their bankroll so they can move up to higher levels and have the chance to win more, but factoring in so many unknowns complicates the calculations.
How realistic is a 1% improvement? What about 5% or 10%?
I doubt any player in the world is good enough that they couldn't find an extra 1% if their life depended on it. The top players in the world may have trouble improving their results 10%, but the main reason is the same reason they're top players. They've already found almost every small extra edge as they could and incorporated it into their game.
When I was in the early days of becoming a better poker player I easily improved 10% per year for quite a few years. Of course I started at such a low level of skill that I had a long way to go, but 10% was nothing.
When I learned how to really use table selection I improved my game by well over 10%. The same is true for when I really started thinking about and using position.
But the best players have already learned these things and are looking for the extra small edge. Even one that can give them an extra half a percent is valuable.
Here's an example of a small edge that a pro recognizes and uses.
An overall good player, who frequents a no limit game that the pro plays in, never plays anything less than Q Q or A Q suited from under the gun. This makes a total of six hands she can have whenever she plays from UTG. This might not seem like much, but a small bit of information such as this is can be the difference between winning and losing a large pot. A single large pot is enough to make a losing session a winning one and give you an extra small edge over time.
A dozen small edges quickly add up to the percentages we discussed above.
By the time you've been able to work through everything on this page about the psychology of a winning Texas holdem player and learn how to use the concepts you'll be a much better player than you currently are.
But even if you've mastered everything on this page you can still learn more about the game and improve.
Remember the following:
- Always be thinking
- Always be studying
- Always pay attention