Meta-play: The Zen of Hold'em

The Wrong Way To Play

Texas Hold’em is, at its heart, hellova complex. One part statistics, one part psychology and nine or ten parts old-fashioned luck, it’s one of those games that can take a lifetime to master. Many newcomers to the game don’t seem to realize this fact, and more often than not, it causes them a tremendous amount of grief and frustration.

The main misconception these new players have is that poker has strict guidelines and all they have to do is follow these rules to win a WSOP bracelet. But in Texas Hold’em—unlike blackjack—there are no optimal strategies that will work in every situation. Poker is a fluid game, and a good poker player will take the time to learn as many different strategies and approaches to it as he can. What's more, he'll also take the time to study his own game. For instance, he’ll analyze his tells and the decisions he makes when his emotions have gotten the best of him. Then, he’ll work to correct them or utilize them as a kind of smoke screen to throw off his opponents. This is an over-time situation—after all, guys like Doyle Brunson were, once upon a time, young novices too. But given enough time and dedication, anyone can reach the point of meta-playing, poker-mastering mofo.

Otherwise, almost all the advice given to new poker players will only help them achieve a basic level of Hold'em competency. Tips tend to assume that, going into it, the reader has never played Hold’em before, and generally every tip you’ll every read has also been read by every other halfway serious novice. They can help you out, sure. But they can never take the place of proper situational-judgment skills. Poker, like anything else, is something that takes experience. It’s not a game of optimal, pre-planned strategy. All of the best poker players vary their plays based on the current pot, their chip count, the skill-level of the players around them, their odds of winning at any given moment… and on and on and on.

The Right Way to Play (Or How to Get There)

Poker players that rely on ready-made recipes are doomed to fail because their plays become predictable—and predictable in a textbook way. They won't take into account many important situational factors when making decisions, and so their rigid strategies crack at the first sign of an unforeseen storm. What’s more, since everybody else has read the textbook too, they’ll be able to spot the tip in a heartbeat even if they’ve never played with that player before. Heck, they might even be able to think up the title of the book it’s from and the exact page it’s found on as they watch him use it.

Unfortunately, barring a personal palm reading, there isn’t much advice we can give you as far as situational-judgment skills go. What we can do, however, is give you three homework assignments that will help you reach the real top of your game and let you go at it on your own:

1.) Play every day! Play until your eyes bleed! Play until your hands are sore with paper cuts! Play until you begin to see playing cards dancing the jitterbug in your sleep! And then… play some more!

2.) After every round, consider your flaws. Think about the moves you made—both those that worked and those that didn’t—and ask yourself: “What could I have done better? What are some situations that could have been played differently? How often did I correctly place opponents on their hands?” Simply put, the more questions you ask, the better player you’ll be.

3.) Learn all the strategy and tactical tips you can, both theoretically and practically. Then, forget them. Anybody who can do that in a field of knowledge is bound to master it because knowing is not the same as reminding yourself. You should make the right play naturally, not because you have a mental grocery-store list telling you what to do.

Finally, if you really want to become a better player and are practicing online, spend time studying your hand histories. In online poker rooms, as opposed to land-based casinos, the house will normally display all the losing players’ hands. When you beat someone who called you up to the River before backing out, or you turned a lucky draw, request the hand history and see what your opponent had. This will give you an idea of how often you correctly judged your opponents hands, and assuming there's a chat function for that room, how well you read their reactions in real time.

-Jim Abrahamsson