I’ve always thought it fortunate that you don’t have to be a genius to play winning hold ‘em. As complex and mystifying as the game can be, it’s not rocket science. You can go a long way in this game on the strength of common sense, experience, and a healthy dose of discipline. Though the poker book industry would probably disagree, I don’t think there’s much in the way of basic strategy that any reasonably intelligent player can’t eventually figure out for himself.
Moreover, there’s a lot to be said for independent learning. It’s one thing as a beginner to read about say, the “gap concept” which holds that a player needs a much better hand to enter a pot after someone else has raised than to open raise himself, or the “sandwich concept” which states that a player needs a better hand to play if there are others yet to act, but it’s quite another to come to these conclusions on your own, especially when they arise as a consequence of some sort of insight during the heat of battle.
I’ve been playing limit hold ‘em for some years now, and I’ve had any number of these poker epiphanies, flashes of strategic insight that illuminate the game from the inside out, rather than from the outside in as is the case when reading a text book, each one leading to lasting and often substantial improvement.
This is not to say that it’s a bad idea to read poker books. To the contrary, they’re an indispensable aid to speeding up what’s an often excruciatingly slow learning process. If nothing else, they give you the conceptual tools, the language, to begin thinking in productive ways about a difficult and elusive game. What I am saying however is that it’s frequently the case that a player doesn’t truly own a strategy, or a strategic concept, unless and until he arrives at it independently, as a product of his own hard-earned experience.
When I first started playing hold ‘em for example, I was an habitual cold caller. I’d read that cold calling was a losing play, but I didn’t really get it. The starting standards I often encountered seemed so loose that I found it difficult to chuck hands like KQ or ATs when the raiser might really have anything at all, including pure garbage. But by the same token, I instinctively felt that these hands were not strong enough to 3-bet.
Then one day I cold called an early raise with AQ, missed the flop, then meekly folded to my opponent’s bet. I’d made this embarrassingly fishy play many times before I’m sure, but now a light came on. Here I was, with position and for all I knew the best hand, and yet I was setting myself up to lose by making it necessary to hit the flop. The big problem of course is that most of the time I wasn’t going to hit that flop.
But then again, neither was my opponent. Why not 3-bet no matter what my holdings, and for a change force the other guy to catch a card? And as a bonus, why not knock the blinds out in the process? For me, it was a moment of penetrating clarity, and from that time to this I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve cold called a raise.
As I’ve said, far from rocket science, and yet a difficult enough concept to put into practice, especially for a beginner, and I was now in possession of it much more solidly than had I simply taken some poker writer’s word for it. The notion that one should generally either fold or 3-bet was mine forever because I’d earned it, because I had in some sense discovered it for myself.
Here’s another example of a strategic epiphany, this one having to do with betting for value on the river. This has always been a tough spot for me, as it is with many players. Not only is one forced to juggle several competing ideas at once, but betting the river can be emotionally hazardous as well. For lots of otherwise decent players, there’s no bigger leak than the habitual failure to make river bets.
Let’s say I have a hand like J5s in the BB and call the Button’s open raise. The flop is J74 rainbow. I check-raise the flop, bet the turn when a Q falls, then hesitate as another scare card comes in the form of a K. This can seem like quite a difficult position and many players, including an earlier incarnation of myself, habitually check here. Once in a while the button will bet a weaker hand and you’ll earn a bet anyway, but more often he’ll check behind unless he’s got a winner.
One day with a sudden flash of insight it occurred to me that checking in this situation was an especially poor play because not only was I never getting the money in when I had the best of it, I was always paying off when I had the worst of it. Over time, I realized, this had to be costing me a fortune as the only action I was getting was negative action. I can’t say that I still don’t occasionally miss a river bet because I do, but since that single helpful insight I’ve done a much better job of betting the river.
Sometimes poker epiphanies can take on a less specifically tactical tone in favor of a more general, almost philosophical flavor. One of these for me was the suddenly deeper appreciation of the fact that my opponent only has two cards. In other words, a scary board is not at all a guarantee that my opponent has a strong hand. Sure, in the previous example he might have a K, or a Q, or even AT, but he also might well have A7, A4, a losing pocket pair or simply A high. It’s a thin bet, yes, but that’s my point. Those bets add up. Over time they’re going to make a substantial difference to your bottom line.
Part of what makes poker such a great game is that the learning process never ends. And while I don’t mean to give poker texts short shrift….they’re a vital part of every poker players development….there’s really no substitute for experience. When that experience yields a sudden flash of understanding, some unforgettable moment of clarity and illumination, there’s not a more rewarding feeling in all of poker.