Playing Winning Poker: Part 1

Ah, poker…it seems such a simple game. Just learn the rules, apply yourself, and in a very few moments you too can be a winning player. Anyone, it seems, can play it well – though nothing, of course, is further from the truth. While the rules of the game are easily learned, it takes considerably longer to become a winning player. Still, anyone willing to put in the time and make the effort can learn to play at a relatively high level of skill.

More than a microcosm of all we admire about Capitalism and democracy, poker is part of the very fabric we have spent 220 years weaving into the American Dream. After all, we succeed in poker the way we succeed in life: by facing it squarely, getting up earlier and working harder and smarter than the competition. I believe in poker the way I believe in the American Dream. Poker is good for you. It enriches the soul, sharpens the intellect, heals the spirit, and played well – nourishes the wallet. Above all else, it forces us to face reality deal squarely with it.

Oh, sure, we can ignore those realities. Lots of players do. They are consistent losers, but rather than face the deficiencies in their own game, they persist in placing the blame on fate, on the dealer, on that particular deck of cards, or on anything else – except themselves – that’s handy. It was Jonathan Swift who said, some 250-odd years ago: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” The same analogy holds true for losing poker players. Because they deny reality and fail to analyze their own play, they can see flaws in everyone’s game but their own.

Perhaps British author and poker player Anthony Holden said it best. In Big Deal: A Year As A Professional Poker Player he writes: “Whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table; if the other players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame. Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards, as in life.”

How true. Unless you are prepared to examine both your poker skills and the quality of your character – and your opponents are surely doing this every time you play against them – there is little else you’ll be able to do that ensures winning. That’s your challenge. For today, tomorrow and forever: For as long as you aspire to winning poker, you must be willing to strip your own character bare, examine and analyze it, repair it, and do it over and over again – as long as it takes to become a winner – in cards and in life. If you can stand up to this rigorous challenge, you too can become a winning poker player.

In the next few issues we’ll explore what’s really important in playing winning poker. That’s not to say that other facets of the game can be ignored – far from it. It’s just that these articles will deal with poker’s critical elements. Many of you write to me with your questions, and I answer each letter I receive. From your letters I’ve learned that many readers, striving to become better players, eagerly seek practical knowledge and advice that they can use when they play.

It’s also apparent that some overall structure seems to be missing from many players’ games. After all, some elements are much more important than others, and strategic, mathematical, and theoretical knowledge are just pieces of a larger pie. Usable knowledge has to be organized so that is is accessible – and readily available when needed. Just imagine a dictionary with all the definitions arranged randomly. While it would contain all the definitions it’s useless without structure. There’s no scheme of things. The only way to look things up would involve scanning each page until you eventually found what you needed.

Everything requires a foundation. Only with a foundation firmly in place can you proceed to build on it, and that’s the purpose of this series of articles: to put first things first.

To play winning poker you need a plan to learn the game. Call it a game plan or a study plan. While the school of hark knocks might have sufficed as the educational institution of choice twenty or thirty years ago, most of today’s good poker players have added a solid grounding in poker theory to their over-the-table experiences. “What’s the best way to learn poker theory?” you might logically ask. “It’s not like there’s a college around the corner offering a major in poker.” Until the late 1970s there wasn’t much reliable information available to those aspiring to poker expertise. Much early poker literature was fundamentally incorrect. But things are different now, and there’s no shortage of learning materials to choose from. Today’s problem is selecting the right materials, and this requires sifting through stacks of books, computerized poker software, and videos that have been produced over the past fifteen years – each new product, of course, claiming primacy.

Next issue we’ll examine whether winning strategies alone are enough to guarantee winning at poker, how the information explosion has affected poker, and why certain things are much more important to playing winning poker than others. Until then, keep flopping aces.