My Top 7 Tips for Making Better Decisions in Poker
Published on October 13, 2018
Poker is an interesting game because it involves two elements. One is skill, and the other is luck.
The skill element is made up of making good decisions. But even if you make good decisions, you can still lose. This makes it such a great game.
A pure game of skill, like chess, doesn’t have a random element. Neither does billiards. It’s entirely skill-based.
But if the chess pieces had minds of their own and moved at random after you chose a piece, or if the balls on the pool table could think and move at random, you’d be playing a game closer in its essence to the game of poker.
Unfortunately, I have no advice on how to change the laws of probability. When you’re dealing with poker, any attempt to do that would be cheating — changing the make-up of the deck or marking the cards. I think that’s always a negative expectation decision.
There’s plenty of money to be made in poker even after taking into account the chance element of it. You need to make the best possible decision every time you get a hand. Further, you need to accept that a certain percentage of the time, the right decision will still lose.
In the long run, though, if you’re making decisions that win 60% of the time and lose 40% of the time, you’re bound to make a profit — even though it feels like you’re terribly unlucky.
That’s one of the first mental disciplines of the game to grow accustomed to.
This post offers some advice on how to make better-quality decisions at the poker table.
I used to play poker with a guy we had nicknamed “Lobster.” He told me one time, “DBSRO.”
That stands for “don’t be so result-oriented.”
What he was saying was that it didn’t matter what the results of a single hand or even a single session were. If I made the right decision(s), the outcome is irrelevant. In the long run, if you keep making good decisions, you’ll eventually win money.
If you focus on making the right decision every time you have a chance to make a decision, the money will flow your way as a by-product of those decisions.
That’s your real goal – making good decisions consistently.
You want to make the best possible decision you can with your starting hand. You want to follow that up with a great decision on the flop. Then follow that up with good decisions on the turn and the river, if you’re still in the hand.
You have a limited number of decisions you can make in a Texas hold’em game.
You’re not a computer, and this isn’t blackjack. There are so many factors to take into account that it would be unbelievable to think you could make the mathematically optimal decision in every situation.
But it’s still your job to try.
And the good news is that many of your opponents aren’t even striving toward this goal. They’re happy to play mediocre poker. They’re happy to make questionable decisions repeatedly.
Every time they make a poor decision and you make a good decision, you profit, even if you lose that hand.
That’s because poker is a long-term game, not a short-term game.
The only logical way to think about poker is in the long term. If you’re playing in the short run, you might as well be playing bingo, keno, or slot machines. And, in fact, this is how some people play the game. Those players are net losers in the long run, though.
Sure, we’d all love to book a winning session every time we go to the cardroom. That’s just not realistic, though. The nature of random events is that they sometimes go the way they’re mathematically unlikely to go.
You accept that because it means that the weaker players at the table will misinterpret that phenomenon and play less skillfully as a result.
The less skillfully your opponents play, the more you win in the long run.
But in the short run, this means your pocket aces or pocket kings are going to get cracked. You’re going to see a lot of bad beats.
It’s impossible to have a bad beat if you get into a hand with worse cards than your opponent, by definition. You get a bad beat when you go into a hand with the best cards, and your opponent wins anyway.
Players who make consistently good decisions see bad beats all the time.
It means you’re playing well.
Learn to embrace bad beats by thinking about the game in the long term instead of the short run.
It’s all about making the right decisions EVERY time. Consistency matters. That’s the only way you can win at poker in the long run — by making the right decisions consistently.
Suppose you get pocket aces in a no-limit Texas hold’em game, and you put all your money in the pot before the flop. You get 9 callers. And you lose.
You had a 30%+ chance of winning, though, and with that many players in the pot, you had appropriate pot odds to make that move.
Now let’s say the same thing happens every time you get pocket aces for the next 10 times you get pocket aces. You get drawn out on every time you have pocket aces 10 hands in a row.
Getting all your money in the pot when you’re the clear favorite is always the right move, and in the long run, you’ll profit from it. The short run, though, is often longer than you think. And the cards fall funny for everybody now and then.
Some players get really upset when they lose a hand. Really, if they got upset with themselves every time they made a bad decision, regardless of whether they won the hand, they’d be a lot better off.
When you’re playing your cards badly, you’re losing money — even when you’re winning money.
I touched on this earlier, but the trick to getting good at poker is focusing less on the results and more on how well you play.
You must become discerning enough to distinguish between good play and bad play, though. To do that, you need to read, study, and maybe even get some professional coaching.
Winning money is a by-product of the true goal of poker — making quality decisions. Lots of players win a lot of money during a session in which they play terribly. I’ve seen it happen with some of the cockiest and most annoying players at the table.
I’ve learned to embrace these players and their behavior, even when they’re winning. I know that in the long run, their bad decisions will catch up with them. I also know that my better decisions combined with their worse decisions will put money in my pocket in the long run.
After every hand, ask yourself if you made the best possible decision. Give yourself credit and a mental pat on the back every time you can say yes to that question.
I’ve had nights where I’ve lost my entire bankroll, but I was still proud of how skillfully I played. I’ve also had nights where I’ve won hundreds, but I wasn’t on top of my game. And I was less than proud.
Money is the ONLY measure of success in poker (if you’re a serious player). The paradox is that money isn’t a good measure of success in poker in the short run at all; it only counts when you get into the long run.
It’s okay to lose. Sometimes, you’re better off losing. If you make a pass at a married woman, and she turns you down, you’re probably better off. You’ve avoided a situation that could be complicated and dangerous at the same time. With the right perspective, you can be glad you failed in that attempted seduction.
On the other hand, sometimes you succeed even when you’re making a bad decision. This fuels future bad decisions. You embezzle a little money from the company where you work, and you get away with it. So you embezzle a little more.
Eventually you get caught and go to prison. You’d have been better off getting caught when the amount was small enough that you’d just get fired instead of being prosecuted.
People learn from failure. When you make a bad decision and fail, you can make better decisions in the future. If you keep learning from your failures, you can eventually start making consistently good decisions throughout your life. And you’ll be happier and more successful for it.
This is true in poker, too.
You probably have the attitude that if you get your money in the pot with the second-best hand, you’ve been really lucky when you drew out on your opponent. You SHOULD, instead, be hoping to fail.
You don’t want getting lucky to interfere with your ability to make quality decisions at the poker table in the future.
And that’s exactly what happens. One of the most common cognitive biases among gamblers is selective memory. You remember when things went right, even if they were unlikely, better than you remember when things went wrong just the way they were supposed to.
Get used to the idea that the outcomes in the short run won’t always line up with your expectation.
I’ve written a lot of blog posts in the past where I mention how important it is to fold regularly. When your gut is telling you to fold, listen to it.
It’s rare that the feeling in your gut is an optimist. That’s a different part of your body (and brain) talking to you.
Most of the time, you’re not the favorite. That’s just the reality of poker math.
If you’re likelier to listen to your gut when it’s suggesting that you be careful, your decisions will be coinciding with the right choice most of the time. Yes, sometimes you’ll fold when you have the best hand. But most of the time, you’ll be right to fold.
If you have a marginal hand preflop, and you’re in the pot with 4 other players, you’ll usually get a board that doesn’t help you.
But the good cards have to be out there somewhere. Someone’s hand has probably improved. It’s your job to accept that this is the nature of the game and be willing to drop out of the hand in the face of bets and raises.
A lot of times, you’ll be frustrated with what your gut is telling you because you feel like you haven’t gotten involved in a pot in a long time. Or you might have lost too many times in a row.
This doesn’t mean your gut is wrong. Sometimes the cards are unfair in the short term. Accept that.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve had to fold tonight. If it’s the right decision, fold again.
You only SEEM to be losing. By saving your money for the positive expectation situations, you’re actually winning in the long run.
You see lots of poker strategy articles discussing the appropriate size for a bankroll. This is warranted.
If you’re terrified of losing the money in front of you, you’ll make bad decisions based on your bankroll instead of making the correct decisions based on the situation.
Poker is a game of swings. To weather those swings, you need enough money to last into the long run. How a single hand plays out should have no effect on your game because you have enough money in your bankroll to not have to worry about it.
On the other hand, you don’t need a bankroll so big that the game becomes meaningless. If you have $1000, and you’re playing an online game of $0.0.1/$0.02, you’re going to get into the habit of making bad decisions just because the money doesn’t matter at those stakes.
Luck is a significant factor in poker, and it interferes with many players’ ability to make solid decisions. Changing your mindset so that you’re less interested in short-term results is one way to improve the quality of your decision-making.
You really only have two things to work with at the poker table — luck and decisions. You can’t control luck. But you can control your decisions. If you make consistently correct decisions, in the long run, you’ll come out ahead and achieve your goals.