Ways to become a skilled hold’em poker player

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What is “skill”? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Skill is “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively in doing something.”

“Effectively” implies being successful and efficient in “doing something.” Whether you are a poker pro or a recreational player, skill is essential to success: It’s about winning.

Gaining skill requires effort. There are so many ramifications and situations inherent in playing poker. Short cuts? You can read poker books and magazines, attend poker classes, and play to gain experience, starting at low stakes and gradually moving up. While developing and honing your poker skills, cash games are better to avoid the additional complications inherent in tournament play.

But, what is skill – in practice, as distinct from theory? Let’s identify what is needed to become a really skilled hold’em player. What does it take to give yourself the edge?

Ways to become skilled:

Know the rules of the game. (That‘s basic.)

Specialize in one game so you have the best chance of optimizing your skills. Master that game. (Don’t be “a jack of all trades, a master of none.”)

Clearly define your goals. According to Vince Burgio, to be successful, a player must “know where he wants to go with his poker playing” – be it a career as a poker pro or a recreational player. I would add a goal for how much you would like to win at each session.

Play when you are mentally, physically and financially ready so you can make the best decisions without being handicapped.

Be prepared to focus on the game. Avoid alcohol and drugs, and any distractions from the game. Don’t watch TV, use your smart phone, text or email friends while involved in a hand. There is much to observe and think about as the game progresses. Be able to make the best decisions.

Wear comfortable clothing. It may be a long evening.

Be sure you can see the cards on the board. Don’t misread the board.

Eat properly so you can keep your mind on the game. If you order food at your table, take a short break from the game. Don’t divert your attention from the game in order to eat.

Carefully select the table and seat at which you play. Every table is different; it’s the players who set the texture of the game at the table.

Select good starting-hands. Toward that end, learn the Hold’em Algorithm or use charts available in many poker books.

Carefully observe and evaluate your opponents (the “enemy”). What kind of player is each?

Look for tells and understand their meaning; and avoid giving any (except reverse tells).

Know when to fold’em. A dollar saved is worth more than a dollar won.

Know which hands are best to raise with — and when to do so.

Fully understand the poker odds (pot odds and card odds) and how to use them.

Be aware of the importance of betting position in making decisions. In a late position, you can see what your opponents do before you must act. The later your betting position, the more information you will have to make better decisions.

Learn the art of bluffing, including the Esther Bluff tactic. Learn how to get into your opponent’s mind to convince him you have the best hand, so he mucks his.

Know when and how to semi-bluff. It offers you two ways to win that pot. The Esther Bluff tactic should be part of your arsenal.

Use Money Management: Have enough funds so you do not play scared poker (afraid to raise when it would be the wise decision) at whatever limits/stakes you play. Use a money management technique to avoid the pitfalls due to the inherent variance (ups and downs) during a session. Go home a winner.

Would you like me to elaborate further on any of these? Email: [email protected].

Acknowledgement: A number of poker leaders have contributed to this special column. We thank them all for their support.

“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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