Focus on your poker instincts
Beginning players are afraid to make mistakes because they don't want to look like a beginner. Experienced players are afraid to make mistakes because they also don't want to look like a beginner. It isn't a big leap to say that most players have this fear of making mistakes for one reason or another.
In fact, many poker theorists say the main goal in poker is to minimize your mistakes, or at least minimize making the big ones. Many players focus on wins and losses when it would be better to focus on the one thing over which they have control: minimizing their mistakes. While this is true, there are also some merits in making mistakes. Even though your aim is to minimize them, it can be a mistake to be afraid of making them.
The first thing to understand is that there is something you can do that is worse than making a mistake. Although I authored a book titled Texas Hold'em Odds and Probabilities, math is only one facet of the game. There are many situations in which you have to throw out all of the math, all of the poker-book strategies, and all of the so-called correct strategies, and focus on one thing: your poker instincts. Note that I am referring to your poker instincts, not other types of instincts that you may have learned away from the table.
When I talk about poker instincts, I am referring to that voice inside your head that is trying to give you guidance as to what your opponent is holding and how he might react to different situations. Sometimes this voice can't give you reasons for its advice, yet it is still there and can be heard. For many players, this is the very first thought that comes to mind once their opponent has acted, or another street is dealt.
You can have solid fundamental technical skills, but you will never be a good poker player if you don't learn to trust your poker instincts. Note that this does not mean that you make plays that go against the poker odds, but simply that you use your instincts to help narrow down the range of hands that your opponent is holding or to tell you what you think your opponent might do in a certain situation.
Making mistakes is human nature; going against your poker instincts is inexcusable. This isn't the easiest thing to do, however, especially in big-time tournaments when a lot of money is on the line. What kinds of things might your poker instincts be telling you?
- I don't believe he has a very strong hand, and I ought to call.
- Even though I suspect that he has an overpair, I think I can get him to fold to a raise.
- I'm not exactly sure what hand he has right now, but he would have a tough time calling anything unless he is sitting on a set. I should raise.
- He is bluffing, and my ace high is good here.
- I am short-stacked and need to make a move very soon. This seems like a good situation to go all in and hope for the best.
I suspect that your instincts tell you these types of things all the time, yet how often do you follow them? Every time you ask yourself these types of questions, you might find other questions that tell you why you shouldn't trust your instincts. It generally isn't easy to push a guy off an overpair, so you decide to fold even though you think that in this particular situation, your opponent would probably fold. If you're wrong in calling someone down when you suspect that he is bluffing, you will hurt your chip stack or feel embarrassed. You will feel embarrassed if you raise on a bluff and your opponent catches you. You could wait a little longer for a bigger hand before you push all in when short-stacked.
Whether you are right or wrong, abandoning your poker instincts is a bigger mistake than trusting them and finding out that you were wrong. The best players have developed two critical skills that separate them from the rest. First, they have developed solid poker instincts, which are generally right most of the time. Second, they have learned to act on them.
If you don't trust your instincts and follow them, you will never learn if they are right or not. The less confidence you have in them, the less often you will follow them. Unfortunately, that can be a vicious cycle. Once you start following your instincts, you will learn from your mistakes and improve as a player, which, in turn, will give you the confidence to follow your instincts on a regular basis.
The other thing to realize about making mistakes is that each time you make a mistake and learn from it, you are actually giving yourself long-term positive expectation. Think about this: When you make a mistake and learn from it, you should never make that mistake again during your entire poker career! Rather than getting depressed from your mistakes, embrace them! You have just learned something that will save you a lot of money over your career. One of the worst things that can happen in a poker session is to sit there for several hours and not learn anything. As long as you learn each time you sit down at the table, you should be in for a long, profitable poker career.
Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Develop your game and your poker instincts, and when the time comes, trust them. Follow them, and your game will improve dramatically. And when you make mistakes, embrace them and remember that you have just learned something that will make you a better player.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.