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What Makes a Poker Player Good Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I discussed how it’s the uncommon, difficult, decisions that separate the best players from their peers, in this installment the focus will shift to adjustments. I concluded Part 1 with the following statement, “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,” which is where I’ll pick-up the discussion.

Decent players may be able to implement an optimal strategy but they often have a hard time switching to an exploitive strategy, finding and exploiting the leaks in their opponents’ game and adjusting accordingly –they will have an even harder time switching to a different exploitive strategy for each opponent.

Perhaps the best example of using an exploitive strategy in recent times was Phil Hellmuth’s massive over-bet pre-flop in the Big One for One Drop tournament with Pocket Aces. From a game theory standpoint the raise is utterly foolish (and the laughter at the raise proves this) but against the specific opponent the play worked; Hellmuth brushed aside the optimal play in favor of using an exploitive strategy.

The ability to read your opponents, understand what each individual thinks of your play, and rationalize all of the table dynamics is usually lumped into the term “Meta-Game”. Meta-game is the game within the game of poker, and the above factors are what go into the meta-game.

Reading your opponents

The ability to read your opposition, whether it’s betting patterns, physical tells, their current mindset, or any other factor comes from experience. The best players in the world have an uncanny ability to find the one crucial piece of information needed to make the rest decision, while their lesser brethren miss these cues; are overwhelmed by conflicting information (maybe a players betting pattern is to bet big when bluffing but their mannerisms are screaming they have a strong hand); or perhaps they read too much into these cues and over-think the situation.

Your own table image and individual history

An often overlooked aspect of poker is how your opponents view you, especially your thinking opponents, and what type of history you have with certain players.

It doesn’t matter how well you think you have your opponent sized-up if they have you sized-up just as well or better; in fact, a player that knows you know precisely what they have, and knows you don’t know they know this –fun isn’t it!– has a big advantage as they have won the meta-game war. They can now deviate from the optimal strategy into an exploitive strategy even though you have correctly read their hand. In this case you are unaware of your own table image as it pertains to this particular opponent.

You can also fall into the trap of forgetting your history with certain players. Maybe you have shown this player a river check-raise bluff twice in the past; the question is now whether a river check-raise for value is the best play or if your opponent will realize you are using your past experiences to now switch your strategy. The balance between betting patterns, personal history, and meta-game is perhaps the trickiest in poker.

In the series finale I will talk about the final piece of the puzzle that goes into being a winning poker player: Mental Toughness.

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