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As you get seated at the poker table, how can you identify the best player there? And, why is this important to you?

I’ll wager many (if not most) of you will respond: “It’s really easy. Just look to see which player has the most chips stacked up in front of him.” That’s OK as a first guess; but, that’s all it is – a guess. The problem with that approach is he might have bought-in for several racks of chips before you arrived at that table; or, perhaps, he got real lucky and rivered a couple of big pots just before you got there. Anyone can get lucky!

There is a better way to identify the best player – a series of three observations: Most important is to observe how often he stays to see the flop. The best player folds the vast majority of his holecards. On average, he pays to see the flop less than one out of three hands dealt – even fewer from an early position.

On the other hand, anyone who consistently invests to see the flop more often – one out of three or more of the hands dealt to him – is bound to be a “PokerPigeon.” He’s a loser! In the long run, as you steadily rack up his former chips, he will go home broke.

Secondly, how many of those hands does he win? Being selective in his starting-hands, he is bound to win more often with these cards.

Thirdly, look to see if he uses deception, such as check-raising and then showing down a powerful hand with which he trapped you and the others who called him to the river. He knows how to build the size of the pots he wins. For certain, he is a “PokerShark.”

Why do it?

All PokerSharks deserve your respect, especially the best of them. Be extra cautious when he is in the pot against you. That’s tough competition. Make it your business to obey the Hold’em Caveat. Muck your marginal drawing hands unless you can see a cheap flop – preferably with no raises – and it’s a multi-way pot with three or more opponents seeing the flop, so there may be a decent pot should you connect.

Try to figure out what hands he most likely is holding. If he raised preflop and then checked thereafter, chances are he has a premium drawing hand or middle pair in the hole, and did not improve on the flop. If he made a continuation bet or raised on the flop, either he has a made hand such as two-pair, two overcards in the hole, or he plans to go for a bluff. Has he been deceptive in previous hands? And, of course, look for tells. Even the best players are not immune to giving a tell now and then. Ask yourself if it could be a reverse tell.

Position is important. Ideally, you would like to be seated just to the left of “Top Player.” You can see what he does before you have to act. If he raises, you can easily muck your holecards and save some chips for a better opportunity – unless you happen to have a powerful starting-hand. That would be a made hand – A-A, K-K, Q-Q, or a premium drawing hand such as A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q or pocket Jacks. (By the way, this also applies when there is a maniac at your table.)

If you flop two-pair, recognize that your hand is quite vulnerable. What if “Top Player” (or the maniac) comes out betting or raises before you? Consider making your own raise to thin the playing field, so your hand has a better chance of keeping the lead all the way to the showdown. (We all hate being rivered!) Being in position against “Top Player” gives you a big advantage over all of your opponents.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Email: [email protected].

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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