A Poker Lesson on Perception

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One of the most frustrating aspects for a young (and that’s not referring to age, but to experience) poker players can be when you go scrounging for all the information and advice you can get, only to find that while you might get some good advice, you have no idea how to translate that into a practical use at the poker table. One of the most common examples I see of this is the sage advice: “Observe your opponents.”

This is great advice, and it is absolutely necessary to becoming a great poker player, but what does this mean? That’s why in these articles I’ve tried to use as many concrete examples as I could, so maybe it would help anyone reading it along the way a couple good players helped me out when I was just getting started. Here’s a lesson from a game a couple days ago that hopefully can help illustrate part of what it means to “study your opponent.”

Part of the difference between an extremely tight good player and a player who plays strong hands but fails miserably is knowing how to play those good starting hands. I watched a player show down with the following three hands, which ended up with three boards like this. All three were hands he lost:

His hand: The board:
:ac: :kc: :8d: :9d: :jd: :2d: :as:
:js: :jd: :qc: :8d: :8s: :2c: :ah:
:7h: :7c: :8d: :9c: :tc: :2c: :3s:

Now granted, he ran into bad luck, but that first hand should have been thrown away the moment a bet showed up, that second hand had “proceed with extreme caution” written all over it, and that third, you just accept you’re having a bad day and get rid of it—especially by the turn. He kept playing them, though, and lost a lot of chips.

Here’s my observations from “watching.” He is NOT a strong player. Just because he has a strong starting hand does not mean he knows how to play it—in fact he kept betting those hands to the river. Other players respected him when they missed their hands, but I watched the board. Pocket pairs always had a chance of hurting me, but I knew he overvalued starting hands. If I had 3rd pair on a junk board, I kept betting because he was paying me off high cards. If I hit a weak flush or weak straight, I kept betting because he was valuing a pair too high.

See the difference? Just a glance of the cards he shows would say strong player, but that’s not the right read. He plays strong starting hands, so you should know if you have pocket nines and the flop is all face paint, you want to throw your pair away because he’s likely to have hit big. If you limped in with 2-2 suited and the board is 2-T-A, you’re all set to go. Don’t just watch the hands, watch how they’re played. It’ll be a big boost to your game and your bank roll.

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