Skills remain essential in real Poker

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Recently, I wrote a column explaining why I much prefer playing “real poker” (limit Texas hold’em currently is my game) vs. “video poker,” the card game about which popular GT columnist Elliot Frome often writes.

By way of review, as I explained, there are several significant differences, but the biggest by far is that in video poker, players interact only with an electronic machine — just as like playing the slots; they are not competing against other players. It’s the player vs. the machine. On that basis, there are a number of important ramifications.

At the end of that column, I invited readers’ comments. Here’s what one of them had to say: “If someone asked me, ‘Which do you like more, nectarines or blackberries? I would reply, neither. I really like both.’”

Certainly, it’s possible to enjoy both forms of poker and there are others, too. Personally, I would prefer 7-card stud. Years ago, that was the most popular poker game. But times have changed.

Today, Texas hold’em is THE game, although Omaha is gaining popularity. I doubt you will find stud in any casino.

So, yes, there are those who prefer video poker (that’s their right). Why? Quite likely, it’s because the skills significant in real poker are not important in video poker. Then, they need not be highly skilled in order to win — although the odds are against them.

What are the poker skills? They start with table selection. What’s the texture of the game at that table — tight or loose, aggressive or passive. But few players give that much thought. (In tournaments, you have no choice.)

By far the most important skill is starting-hand selection. The better (stronger) your starting hand, the more likely you will win that pot. To make it easier, I always recommend the Hold’em Algorithm, no matter the stakes of the game you are playing.

Another important skill is “reading your opponents.” What are their playing traits? For example: Is the bettor prone to bluff? If he’s tight, fold a borderline hand when he raises. Considering the cards on the board, what hands might he be holding?

Also important is using your betting position. A late position (best is being on the Button) offers a big advantage: You can see what your opponents do before you must act. Then you can better decide whether to muck your cards, come out betting, call a previous bet, or raise — important decisions.

Other key skills include: considering stack size — yours and your opponents; counting your outs and estimating the pot odds; knowing when it is wise to fold.

There’s looking for opponents’ tells; using the Hold’em Caveat; betting for value and raising when it’s in your best interests; building the pot when you hold a monster hand (the “nuts” is best) by slow-playing, trapping, check-raising, or using reverse tells.

There’s knowing when and how best to bluff — especially using the Esther bluff and semi-bluffing on the turn.

These are the skills that make real poker so challenging and exciting.

Realize it or not, gaining and using these poker skills also helps us to enjoy a healthy mind — and avoid Alzheimer’s disease as we grow older. Using our skills to quickly make many decisions — a big challenge — is a profound mental exercise that helps us to have healthy neurons and synapses in our brains. 

There are also the social interactions when you play against a number of opponents and interact with the dealers and floor personnel — a psychological benefit most players never think of.

As the reader noted, these things are “just not important to video poker players.” That’s their right, and I wish them good luck as they try to beat the house. I’ll stick to Texas hold’em. 

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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