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Whenever someone asks about poker strategy, they are used to hearing the answer, “it depends.” And while that might sound like a cop out answer, it really is quite true.
There are almost no poker strategy questions where the best answer is the same, every time, no matter how we tweak the details. Because ESPN played and replayed their World Series of Poker broadcasts hundreds of times back in 2004 and 2005, I get recognized often in public. And many of those people approach me; sometimes for a picture or autograph, sometimes with a poker question.
Many of these people are not serious players, and only play occasionally with friends. Usually they do not recall some of the important details of the hand, such as stack sizes, remaining field size, who raised preflop, how many players were in the hand on each street, etc. In many cases they do not remember the cards on the board, or even their exact two cards. Despite telling them that these details are all potentially very important to determining the correct decision they should have made, they still want to get back a specific answer.
I find it amusing when they press me for an answer, should they have called or folded their medium pair when the opponent went all-in on the river, when they can’t tell me the size of the pot, the size of the bet, the exact cards on the board, nor even which pair they held.
As a reader of this magazine, however, you are much more sophisticated in your understanding of the game than that. That being said, I suspect many of you still want specific answers to many questions. You want to know whether you should fold, call, or raise in early position when holding A-10 suited. The truth is, all three options are potentially correct. Which one you should choose depends upon a variety of other details.
This is why I am not a fan of teaching students by use of charts that tell them what to do. It is too likely the student will only memorize the chart, and then NOT put in the effort to learn how to weigh all the other variables. You need to consider stack sizes, the general nature of the table (loose or tight, passive or aggressive, sticky, tricky, straightforward, etc.), the specific nature of the big blind, small blind, and button, any tells you have spotted from players who have already looked at their cards, what stage (if you’re in a tournament), and much, much more.
Because of the endless variables, no two hands are ever completely the same. And if all the facts are not the same, then it is possible the best decision is not the same. Therefore, I prefer to teach concepts to my students, not charts. I want them to understand as many of the potential variables as possible, and to always pay attention at the table, so they can pick up as much information as possible. In this way, they can consider all this extra information, and only then determine their best choice.
None of this is ground-breaking advice. Yet there are many players who are always looking for the shortcuts, the quick and easy-to-apply advice, so they can play a winning game without putting in all the effort actually required. I could create a series of charts telling you what hands to play and how to play them for each position if it is folded to you preflop. I could then create a second series of charts telling you what to do when there is a raise in front, or a call, and so on. I could then provide you with some simplified advice as to how to play each type of flop, considering your relative position to opponents, who put in the last raise, stack sizes, etc. And if I do a decent job creating these charts, and you do a good job of memorizing them, you would be able to play a game that is, well, not bad.
While learning like this would guarantee that you never played horribly, it would also guarantee that you would never become a truly strong, winning player. You would be stuck at a very mediocre skill level. If this is all you want, then learn this way. However, if you want to eventually become a great player, then you need to dig into all the details of the game, study a lot, practice a lot, and put in the time and effort away from the table.
There is no shortcut to greatness. If there were, we would all be great. If you wish to play casually, just for fun, that is great. Poker is a fun hobby. If you want more, you can do so, but only by putting in the time and effort. It depends, for each decision you face. If you want to be great, it will always depend on you. ♠
This is the way we should all behave, and if we do, the games will be more profitable, and better yet, more fun for everyone. If you’re not having fun, why are you even playing? That should be reason number one for each of us. So, let’s get out there, be nice, win more money, and have more fun!
Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He recently authored FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.