Beware being trapped by rules, systems

Mar 6, 2006 2:10 AM

One of the byproducts of the skyrocketing popularity of poker has been the onslaught of new poker books that have hit the market.

It seems like virtually every pro player has a new book out that contains some kind of system or set of rules about how to become a great poker player.

We saw evidence of this at our seminar two weeks ago at Green Valley Ranch. Many of the players cited someone’s system or philosophy about how to win at poker.

Generally, I think it’s good for beginners to read a lot, to gain an understanding about the game and how it is played. It can provide a solid foundation.

But when it comes to blindly following certain rules about how to play and how to bet, then I would recommend caution instead.

Here’s why I think you should exercise caution when following a system: Any time you’re following a system or set of rules, you’re not playing the player. And that is the essence of great poker — you need to play your opponent.

If you watch the great poker players — the pros that always seem to end up at the final table — you’ll notice that they seldom play the same way twice. You can’t put them on a system because you never know how they’re going to play.

In fact, it might be more correct to say that the top players create a new system for every new opponent and for every new situation he finds himself in.

I alluded to this when I told ESPN that I always try to adjust to the other player’s style. That’s the name of the game.

Once you get to the more advanced stages of play, you’ll find that every opponent needs to be played a certain way.

You’ll see evidence of this by watching the pros play: they keep switching how they play hands; they don’t always play the same hand the same way twice. They’re always changing gears, which is how they confuse their opponents. That’s their function, actually, to try and confuse the heck out of you.

Several of the new books preach playing aggressively by suggesting that players go all-in at virtually every turn.

This kind of strategy may work for awhile, but it has to fail only once, you can be called only one time and be knocked out of a tournament or game.

Rather, you should learn to read other players and adjust your play accordingly.

The way to read players is to watch how they bet, when they bet and why they bet. For instance, recreational players who want to have a good time play a lot of hands — they tend to call a lot and raise a lot. Once you have them figured out, you can adjust your strategy to match their style.

For myself, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes of playing with someone in order to assess his style of play.

It may not be as easy for a beginner, but over time, you’ll develop a sense of knowing what your opponent has by the way they’re betting.

This is probably your greatest lesson: how to adjust your style of play to match your opponent. It will take awhile, but you can intensify the process by playing against good players. The lessons you will learn will stay with you and serve you for a long time.