Why Poker Strategy is So Important
There is plenty of luck involved in poker, and this means it is possible to win every now and then even if you're not a very good player. With just a basic understanding of the game it's even possible to win more often than you lose, providing you play against players that are inexperienced or don't really know how to play properly. However, if you have any ambitions of becoming a consistent winner at anything other than the very lowest stakes, you will need to learn all about the strategy involved in poker.
Hundreds of books have been written about poker strategy, and there are hundreds of websites dedicated to the same subject. There are even websites that teach poker strategy using videos made by skilled players, where you can watch them playing and listen to them explaining what moves they are making and why. These books and websites are very popular with aspiring poker players, particularly those that recognize just how important it is to understand strategy if they want to achieve their goals.
In this article we highlight the importance of poker strategy by explaining the basics of what it entails and how it can help you win. We also look at its key elements, and offer some advice on how best to learn poker strategy.
What Is Poker Strategy?
In many respects, poker is quite a straightforward game. The idea is simply to beat your opponents to a pot by either having a better hand than them, or forcing them to fold their hand through your betting. What complicates things, though, is that poker is a game of incomplete information. This means that, every time you act, you have to make decisions based on certain things that you don't know for sure.
You don't know what cards are going to be dealt next, for example, or what cards your opponents are holding. You also don't know what your opponents are thinking, or how they will react to the moves you make. You therefore have to make assumptions or judgments about the information that is not available to you, and that is essentially where strategy comes into play.
"Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose." - David Sklansky
The above quote from David Sklansky - a respected poker player and author - is a principle known as the fundamental theorem of poker, and it sums up a big part of what poker strategy is all about. If you could always act in the same way as you would if you knew for sure what cards your opponents had, you would almost certainly do very well at the tables.
There is more to it than that though. The game isn't just about winning when you have the best cards, or even about winning as many pots as you can. It's about winning as many chips as you can, or at least losing the least amount of chips you can, in any given situation. This means that, even if you could see your opponents' cards, there isn't always a single "correct" way to act. Factors such as how your opponents are going to act also have to be considered.
This is what makes poker strategy such a complex subject. The basic principle is relatively simple, but there are many different levels and many different elements. To be a truly successful poker player, and make consistently good decisions, you have to understand them all.
Key Elements in Poker Strategy
We've already mentioned that there isn't always a single correct way to act at the poker tables. If you outlined a hypothetical situation to ten skilled players and asked them how they would play it, you may well get several different answers. This is because poker strategy as a whole is not an exact science. It's not about learning how to act in any given situation, but rather about learning how to make good decisions for yourself.
In order to do this, you should first of all understand the main elements that are involved in poker strategy. This is open to debate, and there is much more involved too, but in our opinion poker strategy can be crudely broken down into four key elements. These are as follows:
Observation is a very important aspect of poker strategy, as it gives you the information you need to make your decisions. If you haven't watched what your opponents are doing in a particular hand, you will find it harder to try and figure out what cards they might have and what actions you should be taking.
Observing how a player acts over time will also give you some insight into their overall playing style, which will help you decide how to play against them in any given situation. Additionally, when playing live, you may be able to spot any physical "tells" which might give you additional information. For example, a player may tend to breathe very heavily when they have very good hole cards.
Memory is important because your observation skills are only any good to you if you are subsequently able to recall what you have observed. This is quite easy for most people in terms of remembering what has happened previously in a current hand, but you ideally also want to remember previous hands too. It is useful to remember if there is a particular way an opponent bets if he has a very strong hand, for example, or if there is a specific tell that gives away the fact that he is bluffing.
The reason math plays such a huge role in poker strategy is that many of the decisions you have to make involve some kind of mathematical calculation. For example, if you are on a flush draw you can use math to work out your chances of hitting the flush. You can also use it to work out how much you should bet in certain situations, or whether there is enough money in the pot to make a call worthwhile.
This is not to say that you need to be a math genius to succeed at poker. It certainly helps if you have some mathematical ability though, and are able to make relatively quick calculations at the table when you might be under pressure. Just as importantly, of course, you have to know which calculations to make and when to make them.
Psychology is key to poker strategy because, ultimately, you need to be able to get inside your opponents' heads if you want to beat them. This doesn't mean that you need some amazing ability to read minds, it just means that you need to give some consideration to what your opponents are thinking and why they are acting the way they are. You also need to try and act in a way that makes it difficult for your opponents to work out what you are thinking, as you don't want to give them any extra information to work with.
If you can master these four elements, there is very little reason why you can't make money from playing poker. You should be able to effectively analyze every situation you find yourself in, and make solid decisions which should help you beat your opponents on a regular basis.
Advice for Learning Poker Strategy
The most important piece of advice we can offer regarding learning poker strategy is simply that you have to be patient. This is a very extensive subject, and one which has many aspects that are really quite complicated and not at all easy to understand. If you just read a book or two and then sit down at the table and try to put it all into practice, you will probably end up very confused.
Just as there is no single correct way to play poker, there is no single correct way to learn poker strategy. It is a very good idea to take things slowly though, and to use a combination of study and practice. Our advice would be to learn some of the more basic aspects, and then keep playing until you fully understand how to employ them when playing for real.
Once you have done that, you can study further while continuing to play. This will enable you to try things out, learn some of the more advanced concepts, and see what works best for you. There are tons of different approaches that can be used, and you won't necessarily want to use them all. You should also try and develop your own playing style too, taking into account everything that you've learned.
Remember, there is a massive amount of material available to you. It's up to you to find the sources that you find the most useful. You may get the most value out of reading books written by experts, or you may prefer to study the top players in action and examine what they do. You might like to consider using our extensive strategy section, or visiting one of the many poker strategy sites on the web.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: March 2015
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