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What Makes a Poker Player Good Part 1

For years I have espoused the theory that 90% of your decisions in poker are fairly straightforward, and while debates can rage over proper bet-sizing in situation x, and whether to check-raise the flop or check-call and lead the turn in situation y, in the end a competent player is going to make roughly the same amount playing these hands as an extremely skilled player. So why does Phil Ivey win millions while you grind out your yearly $60,000 at the $1/$2 NLHE tables? The answer lies in the other 10% of your decisions.

I call this the 90/10 Rule (I know, not very creative or original!) and I’ll focus solely on pre-flop play to explain the 90/10 rule since it’s the most basic decision you will generally make.

Generally you will just be tossing your hand away pre-flop (likely in the neighborhood of 80%+ of the time), so when it comes to bad hands really good players and decent players will play virtually the same way. Terrible players will lose money trying to play these hands, while everyone else just tosses them into the muck.

Then there are the top 10% or so of your hands, which will pretty much play themselves and show a solid profit. With these hands a decent player may miss a bet here or there, or fail to extract maximum value, but the randomness in these minor mistakes (sometimes betting too small, sometimes too big) will often make up for this gap. In the end, a really good player is going to make slightly more with these hands than their lesser skilled opponents; hell, even bad players are going to show a profit with these hands.

Ok, we’ve accounted for about 90% of your decisions at the poker tables, and so far the difference between an average player and a good player hasn’t really presented itself. So the answer must lie within the final 10% of hands right? Of course it does, because it’s the decisions that are difficult that separate winners from losers, and slight winners from the best players in the game. Virtually every player knows that betting the nut flush is a given, as is folding when your continuation-bet is raised by the tightest player at the table and you have 6-high. While these are extreme cases, 90% of your decisions at a poker table are going to be close to automatic and take less than a few seconds to process.

Your average player has a good grasp of the basic strategies of the game but may not be able to adjust to each opponent as a separate entity to extract maximum value. They may raise A5 on the button against all of their opponents, where the skilled player chooses to sometimes raise, sometimes fold, and sometimes even call, based on the entire dynamic of the hand –which will be the focus of Part 2 of this series.

It’s the calculations and information that goes into your decision-making process for these difficult decisions that separate the best from the rest. It’s not what you do with your best hands or your worst hands it’s the hands in between that matter.

 

 

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