Sunday, March 18, 2012

What Makes a Good Poker Player?

I keep forgetting that there is a subset of my readers who are not active in the poker community and I get subtle (and not so subtle) reminders now and then based on a comment that they leave or something that they say in conversation.  So, to my point I need to focus on explaining certain things better instead of just putting it out there and pretending that everyone understands what the hell it is that I'm saying.
If there is something above and you get stuck on a section or even a word, feel free to ask and once I see it I'll give a more detailed answer or I'm sure one of my other poker playing readers might jump in with a brief description/answer as well.  I'm lost in my own little world where everyone understands me and women think I'm handsome and want to raise puppies with me!

Now, just recently one of my readers who runs Splittersblog asked me a simple question with a not so simple answer:  "What makes a good poker player?"

Honestly, I don't feel that I am really qualified to give this question the full answer that it deserves because I still consider myself just a constant tourist, a little fish in a big pond so to speak.  I play well enough to show a profit almost every year (Oh, that word almost pains me to type - a year where you do not show profit really kills the ego... shit it kills the Id (not the Wizard of), the ego and the superego for that matter!). I win more sessions than I lose and my biggest win over the course of the year is much bigger than my biggest loss.   So, I'm going to attempt to draw up a response that requires thought on my part (I hate thinking in advance) and hopefully encompasses a lot of what it really takes.

The first thing to note about poker is it is the only game in the casino where you are not playing against the house, but instead you are playing against the other players at the table. Sure the house is still going to get their money in the form of the rake which gets dropped nearly every hand but your main purpose is to take money off of the other players.
This does not happen in Black Jack, Craps, Routlette or any other game so of course it creates it's own unusual dynamics.

I feel that I can skip some of the really obvious stuff.  I mean, you are not going to read over my list and then tell me "well, you didn't write that it was important to know the hand rankings" because that would be stupid and I would probably have to track you down and issue some public humiliation (except to you Fboy!  I'm not traveling overseas just to make fun of you, that would be expensive).

So, I'm glad we cleared that up.

Axl Rose best summed up the most important part of a good poker player, Patience, yeah yeah yeah , just a little patience...
Without patience you probably are not going to make it far playing poker and you will continually watch your money be shipped to another player.  Why is patience such a big factor?  I'm glad I pretened you asked.
The simple fact is that you are dealt more crappy hands over the course of your poker life than you are dealt good hands.  There will be some nights where you will be dealt nothing but crappy hands and you will be forced to continually fold while waiting for what might end up being just your one and only opportunity to strike during the evening.  This is one (of the many) reason that it's impossible to win all the time.  Poker would sure be easy if we were constantly dealt Aces or Kings and flopped sets, straights and flushes.   If you don't like the thought of sitting at a poker table for hours on end and watching other players win pot after pot while you get dealt King-Seven offsuit then this game might not be for you.  Sure, you will have times where you'll be on a hot run of cards and the chips will be piling up like flap-jacks at the Waffle House, but most of the time you are going to find yourself folding and waiting for the next hand.

This leads us to another good one, the power of observation.  What are you going to be doing after your cards are folded and other people are still playing the game?  Observing.  Learning.  Watching other players.  Yeah, I guess if you look at your standard low stakes poker games today not a whole lot of this is going on.  People are reading magazines or books between hands. People are texting and making phone calls.  Hell, people are even bringing Nintendo DS's or PSP's to the poker table because they can't deal with the boredom of waiting for a hand and they don't care enough to improve their game by getting reads on their opponents.  However, if you have a desire to be good and succeed then you should be studying the other players at the table to see what they are doing, when they are doing it and trying to figure out why they are doing it.
If two people go to showdown (all bets called on the river and their cards are turned face up while the dealer sorts out who won) then you should be looking at their cards and paying attention to what they have.
You should be trying to reconstruct the hand, and thinking about how they got to where they are.  It is true that some hands play themselves and no thought is necessary.  But, if you see two people going to showdown with weird hands then you need to figure out how they got there and how to take advantage of that in the future.
Does the opponent like to call down with 2nd pair because he doesn't believe you hit anything?
Does the opponent raise his draws or does he call down until he hits?
Is the opponent capable of raising with air or does he only raise when he has a monster?
How does your opponent play when he has a good hand and there are lots of draws on the flop?
Will he raise? Will he check raise?  Will he call an all in on a draw or will he push all in on a draw (important difference).
Does he think about what other people might be holding or does he only know his two cards and their realative strength?
Other than patience, knowing your opponents and being able to figure out what they have is the most important part of succeeding in this game long term.
You can get by with just sitting around and waiting for monsters and trying to get your money in, but when you know your opponents you can figure out situations to milk them for a few extra dollars here and there which will add up to a lot in the long run.
If you know that your opponent will call down with Top Pair and weak kicker (and not raise) then you can make some smaller bets to string him along.

Self-Control - do not play when you don't feel like you can give 100%. Don't play just to put in the hours.  Don't play when you are angry, sad, etc.  Play when you feel great and want to play and have mental clarity
This may or may not seem obvious to people, but when you are not in the right frame of mind you can find yourself doing things you shouldn't.  For instance, if you find yourself playing at the table when you are a bit on the angry side, you will most likely become more aggressive at the table and usually it's not a controlled and well thought out aggression.  You will just become a spewtard and lose money quickly.  Making huge bets, raises, re-raises just for the sake of making them and trying to bully the table around.  Taking your aggression out on the rest of the players so to speak. However, at poker this rarely works the way you want it to and someone is going to "look you up" and take your money because you are playing like an idiot.
Mental focus is very important in poker - this is why you should get up every hour or so and take a small walk, even if only for a few minutes.  Stretch the legs and rest the mind for a few.
This also goes for during your session.  If you ever take a bad beat and feel yourself loosing your cool - you either need to leave the game or find a way to regain your focus.  A good walk will help there, maybe putting your headphones on and cranking out some Pantera will set your mind at ease, etc.  Whatever it is that will work for you, find out what it is and do it.  Maybe you are the type that just needs to quit for the evening and be done with it - if that's what it takes then so be it.  Just learn that you reached your breaking point and have enough sense to actually do something about it.
It's surprising how many people will continue to play when their mood has been altered for whatever reason and then piss away all of their money.  I've seen people go from 4 buy-ins at the table ($800+) to nothing because they took one bad beat and then went crazy trying to get the money back, making stupid plays, stupid raises, pushes, etc and within 30 minutes then lost it all.   A lot of the time these people put more money on the table and blow through that as well.   Mental Focus.  Learn it grasshopper.  Keep in control of your emotions or do not sit at the felt.

I will end here as this is long enough and maybe I will revisit later to add more to it.  But, this is a good start to answer the question "what makes a good poker player?"
Feel free to make fun of me if you disagree with anything above - these are just my own thoughts on the subject hastily written.


  1. Good list.

    In your patience part I think maybe a great player instead of a good player uses the reads he has been getting to make things happen. For instance you may have been dealt 94o for the 99th time of the night.. but if you know your at a table with a whole bunch of nits you can raise and steal the pot thus making a lousy string of cards into a winning night.

    1. Definitely - also the power of observation helps with that as well.
      How many players at the table will actually realize that you have been playing tight and your raise means you have a real legit top tier hand?

      How many people see you raise and still only call based on the supposed strength of their own hand (well, there was a raise and I have AJ, so I obviously call).

      And How many people are sitting there and will even say out loud "man, you haven't played a hand in two hours, you must have aces" and still call anyways.

      If you don't understand your table dynamics you can't make plays like that with garbage like 94o or whatever. And that is something that people like TBC don't understand. He just immediately assumes everything thinks he's tight so he should be able to steal and if someone calls him they're an idiot.

  2. Good to hear some intelligent thoughts from you. Didn't think it possible after years of asking you this very question then being answered with *shrug"I don't know.Make money."

    1. I worked on this post for probably 5-6 days.
      I hate putting thought into things, I much prefer just typing to see what comes out.

  3. Balls of steel - also a necessity of a good poker player. Oh, I'm talking figuratively.

    1. So actual balls of steel will get me nothing except maybe some good table chatter?

      Also a good party trick for the ladies

    2. Yeah, Josie, figuratively. I'm pretty sure Prudence was using it in that sense to me a few weeks ago. I mean, I didn't take my balls out right there at the poker table and show them to her.

      Because that would have been rude.

    3. We know that as a man gets older his boy holder gets droopier, much like a woman's fun-bags.

      As such, it would have only taken you to be wearing shorts for a "sight-check" as I'm sure they hang to your knees at this point.

      Listen - I tried to resist, seriously I did.
      I wrote it out and then deleted it twice. I closed my page and read something else to try to get this out of my head so that I didn't have to share but it kept eating at me and I had to do it.
      Somethings just need to be shared, and this was one of them.

    4. LOLLLLLL As much as I like talking bout Rob's fun bags, my 'balls of steel' comment is more akin to dealing with tatude's 'monsters under the bed'.

    5. Right, Drop your balls of steel on their head a few times and tell them to GTFO!

    6. grrouchie, I want you to know I was NOT wearing shorts. My usual Levi's.

      And despite my advanced aged, and their incredible size, they still ain't hanging to my knees.


      Josie...I just hope my balls don't become as much of a talking point on the internet as your boobs.

  4. Very good post. I learned the hard way but you hit 3 good points. I mostly play tournaments and patience is a key factor in success especially deep stack tourneys. I also found that sometimes u have to be fearless and not constantly see the monsters under the bed.

    1. There is so much more than what I typed above, but I feel that what I put out there is a good starting point.

      If you see monsters under the bed then poker is not for you in all honesty.
      Sure, there will be times when you are on a downswing that you get gun shy, but if you are going to play (especially for a living) then you have to get over that and keep playing your game. The odds all work out in the end no matter what you think at the time.

      I'm trying to get better at river value bets when the scare card hits and it's checked to me. I'm working on it and practicing it.
      One of my big issues is that if I have bet a hand the whole way and then the flush card hits and it's checked to me I would check as well fearing the worst.
      But, not everyone is always calling down with that flush draw - So I'm working on sometimes checking and sometimes betting. Getting that extra value is going to make a huge difference in your wins and loses.

    2. I wonder how much thin-river value bets pay off vs losing the hand to a bluff ESPECIALLY when you think you have the winning hand (totally different story if you know your hand sucks and only way you can win is with a bet).

      The check behind might not be the worst play, now if you are first to act then it might be a much more interesting decision.. If you do not bet the river you are begging your opponent to bet into you... interesting subject though.

    3. I'm not advanced enough of a player to answer this yet though heh!

  5. i fear like the reason i cant win anymore is i dont quit when im behind and i make all the losses so much bigger.

    1. Sometimes it's good to quite when you are behind and sometimes it's good to keep playing.

      It just depends on your mood, how you are feeling at the time. Several times I have been behind by 2 buy-ins and have still felt like I was playing great and went on to have a profitable session.
      However, there were times where I got ahead and started playing worse and had a losing session.

      If you don't feel that you are playing well then you need to quit, no matter ahead or behind.
      The great thing is there will always be more games to play later - especially for someone like you who plays every single day of the year

  6. My first comment on this post was just me being a smart-ass (shocking, I know) but this was a really, really REALLY good post. Certainly in a brief amount of space you covered a lot of really major points in a well thought of presentation. You should definitely consider doing a poker blog.

    The biggest stumbling block for me is the power of observation. I try so hard to follow everyone's actions, their habits, their tendancies, etc. And it just gets to be too much for my little brain to keep track of.

    Oh, I'll know when some guy raises for the first time since the Clinton administration that he probably has a moster, or that when the other guy there DOESN'T raise it'd probably be a good idea to check his pulse to see if he's still alive, but the more specific details are so hard to remember and keep track of. Let's see, was it THIS guy who called THAT guy with Top pair, week kicker, or was it the other way around? Or am I thinking about the guy who left 10 minutes ago? Man it's tough to keep all that straight. But I'm getting better at it, slowly.

    But then some gal at the table starts talking about her vagina, and I kind of forget everything else.

    1. It's kind of funny.. but I think my power of observation is better online than live. Probably makes sense since I make a living on the PC.. but the video game pattern thing works so much better for me than live tells...

      It also could be because I hardly ever play live and might be a little nervous or off my game in a live situation..

    2. @Rob - I don't think it's a talent that can be developed over night and as you said you are working on it. Quite a different dynamic when it comes to NL than the Limit you have been playing for years. And, if you can't get everyone just pick out a person or two to study as you play per session. Or, start off by observing for an orbit or two and just labeling everyone and then slowly work from there to more details.
      For instance, Seat 3 is a nit (sometimes that's all you need). Seat 5 might be a fish. Seat 6 just called down with K5 on a KQ3 two flush board so he's probably a calling station etc.
      If you have it in your mind that seat 5 is a station then when you are in a hand with him you are less likely to keep betting big after your pre-flop raise and you hit second pair because you know he's a station and not folding any top pair at all.

    3. @waffles, this makes perfect sense and is interesting because online you are looking for different patterns (tells) than you can find live.
      However, if you are good at observing and picking up on tendencies online - you should be great at it live because Live players will tel you everything if you pay enough attention.
      At least at my lowly 1/2nl level

    4. Definitely try to focus on one or two players at first, usually it's the guys with the most chips, figuring there might be a reason they got them. But then someone else makes a really good or really bad play and I realize I need to mentally document that as well. Then it repeats, and I wish my brain was bigger.

  7. Ok, I LOVE this discussion. I have nothing to add because I don't understand the nuances well enough to play. But I will say that the draw to the game is the psychology vs. odds. Anyone could get good enough to figure odds (potentially) but the psychology part is a moving target.


    1. Thank you for posing the question and making me think. Well, at least the first part!

      There are many books written about just the psychology of poker and some of them are actually pretty darned good.

  8. I'm in the same boat no reading people well. In real life I can size up complete strangers in seconds and have a great read on folks from all walks of life. Put me at a poker table and I lose that quick. I'm getting a bit better but really need to work at that area

    1. Yeah, I'm not that great at it, but it's something I've been trying to work on a little bit at a time.

      My biggest issue is that when I get out to play poker I'm usually in a "wanna have some fun" mindset.
      However, if I were to ever get real serious about my game I'd have to start working on this detail a lot more.

      Maybe once I'm a craps dealer and spending all my time in a casino (won't have to travel far after work to put in a session) I can start to get a bit serious about it.

  9. I hear you. I play strictly for fun. I'm not gonna make life changing money playing poker. I'm also mathematically challenged and rely on gut instinct which works against me. I do have to try to try to exploit my table image. I think that people assume I play loose and bluff alot when they see me. I need to take advantage of that.

    1. As long as you are aware of the image that you think is projected onto others, you can take advantage of it.

  10. I will tell you Grrouchie thats a good starting point...I have a pratice when playing (because of my temper) If I take a bad beat that I feel was played well instead of playing on tilt,I cash out right then no matter if I am up or down.

    1. That is a good practice if that is what you need to do, and the fact that you do it instead of going on tilt because of that temper of yours show's that you want to be successful.

      Personally, if I start to feel angry because of a beat or whatever, I'm more likely to take an extended walk and get some air, maybe a bite to eat if I haven't recently. Take off 20-30 minutes and come back to the table ready to kick ass again!

    2. Usually it happens toward the end of my "shift" so it dosn't bother me to go...but I have left and came back a couple of hours later after a chill out period...