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Poker Strategy | Beginner's Poker

The Seven Deadly Sins of Poker

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After returning from the World Series of Poker a couple years ago, I asked my new friend Eric Baldwin a.k.a. Basebaldy (Eric has cashed in numerous WSOP events including a 10th and 15th place finish and is a well known Internet professional) a question. I asked him what he thought the biggest mistake poker players make was. His answer surprised me. “I'd say getting closed minded and not getting any better. There's so much luck involved in the short term that people can get away with blaming losing on bad luck, when really the game has evolved to the point where their game isn't profitable anymore.”

His answer wasn't the one I've come to expect when I talk poker with poker players. It was, however, the right one. Everyone makes mistakes in poker. It's what you do with them, how you adjust, IF you adjust, that makes the difference between the winning player and the losing player. This article is going to look at the 7 deadly sins of poker... the 7 biggest mistakes intermediate and advanced poker players make. These mistakes are universal to tournaments, sit and go's and cash games. I'll show you what they are, how to identify them, and at the end a quick way to figure out the mistakes you are making and correct them. Hopefully by the time you're done reading this, you'll be able to avoid having your head handed to you (and if you've seen the movie ‘se7en’ you'll understand this very bad pun) the next time you play poker.

Raising with marginal hands in early position

On the surface, this appears to be a beginner's mistake, but time and time again I see experienced players raising with marginal hands in early position. How many times do you get a hand like A-J or K-Q suited under the gun and think to yourself “oh boy, first good hand I've had in an hour, gotta play it” and open the pot for a raise. Don't lie to yourself. You know you do it. I still do it from time to time. So you're probably wondering then what exactly is the problem?

When you act in early position with a marginal hand you face the dilemma of reacting to your opponents. If you are re-raised, you are essentially throwing away the chips you've already put in the pot. Why? Because your opponent knows you've raised from early position so the range of hands they put you on is probably pretty high. Knowing this, they have raised you. This means they are not afraid of what you are going to do. They have a hand and they are going to play it. Your hand is no good and the three to four big blind raise you just threw out there are now gone (another big mistake is calling these raises, but I think most intermediate to advanced players are capable of folding to a re-raise with a marginal hand).

Giving away information about your play

I know there are advocates of varying the size of your bet based upon position, the strength of your hand, and the tendencies of the remaining players. Do it randomly, these experts say, so that you don't give away any information about the strength of your hand. The inherent problem with this method is people have a natural tendency to fall into patterns. Sure you might think you're raising four times the big blind 80% of the time, but more than likely you're doing it 95% of the time.

The typical mistake that players make is betting a certain amount based upon the strength of their hand.   Some players will bet big with their good hands wanting to reduce the size of the field while others will bet less wanting to get as much money in the pot as possible. This is fine if you are consistent. The problem is when you start to vary. Say you're the type of player who likes to bet less when you have a good hand but when you are just looking to steal the blinds you raise big. An observant player is going to pick up on this and do two things. One, they are going to re-raise your big bets liberally because they know you have a weaker hand. Two, they are going to call your small bets often because they know there is implied value because you have a big hand.

Not adjusting to your opponent's play

Too many players at every skill level fall into the trap of playing their cards without looking for profitable situations that are available to them. Observation and analysis of how your opponent's play can make the cards meaningless. Take mistake #2 for example. If you are at a table and see someone doing this, you should be able to take advantage of it.

Failure to recognize a player's tendencies can also be devastating to the size of your stack. You could lose chips by trying to bluff against a calling station, stealing against a loose aggressive player's big blind, or betting on a three flush board against a player who loves to chase flushes. At the same time you could lose chips by not seeing opportunities because of your opponent's tendencies.. For example: not raising a super tight player's big blind or not betting for value against a calling station with top pair, weak kicker. This is why so many of the top pro's say you need to watch what is going on when you are not involved in a hand. Poker can be an easy game to make money at when you can win a pot without even looking at your cards.
Not making proper sized bets

This mistake contains errors on both ends of the spectrum. Players commonly bet too much or too little. There are several reasons poker players bet. These include getting a player to fold, inducing a player to raise, or getting a player to call. Each time we make a bet we have a desired result. The correct bet depends on whether you are bluffing or betting for value. When you are bluffing the amount should be the least possible to get your opponent to fold. When betting for value, the amount should be the highest possible to get your opponent to call.

Determining these amounts depends on several factors. What are your opponent's tendencies? Do they fold a lot when someone bets? Then you can make a small bet when you are bluffing. Do they call a lot when on a draw and you have top pair? Then you should make a large bet. Sometimes we want to make a bet to give our opponent the appearance of being weak. This again depends on your opponent. How have they reacted to other small bets or large bets? If they think a large bet is weak and we have a strong hand then we should make an over-sized bet and vice versa if they think a small bet is weak. So again use observation to figure out your table mate's betting thresholds, it's how to make money when you have it and lose less when you don't.

Overuse of “conventional” plays

If you are an intermediate to advanced poker player, you've likely read many books and articles about poker. You know what the continuation bet is. You know what the squeeze play is. You understand and utilize the bet to get a free card play. There's nothing wrong with this either, these plays were written about and discussed because they often are the fundamentally correct play to make. When you start to overuse these concepts, however, they become a weakness rather than a strength.

One of the biggest mistakes I see players make is the overuse of the continuation bet. Raise before the flop and I can already tell you that so and so is going to bet this amount on the flop regardless of their holding. Everyone knows that the flop misses people 2/3rd of the time so it probably did not help them. So I raise, they fold, and I just smile slyly as I rake their chips in. Or what about the player that loves the squeeze play. You have a big hand like aces or kings and a player has raised up front. You have a player left to act who loves to squeeze play so you flat call. Sure enough they pop it up and you win a big pot because they just had to do the play they read about in their new poker book. Use the strategic concepts you learn about but make sure you understand the proper situations in which to use them. They won't work every time so figure out when they do, when they don't, and use them accordingly.

Not adjusting to short-handed play

Over the course of a game, players will either leave (in a cash game) or be eliminated (in a tournament). When this happens it is possible to be faced with only 6 or 7 players at your table. Too many experienced players fail to adjust when this happens. They continue to play as if there were 9 or 10 players at the table. They fold hands like A-J in early position. They fold A-T on the button when the player two seats before them has raised.

While these aren't always incorrect plays, the number of hands you open with and re-raise with at a shorthanded table must increase. Think about it... you're going to be posting blinds nearly twice as much as you normally do. Folding continuously is going to cost you money. So what hands do you play? Much of this will depend on how much you have in front of you and what your opponent's stack sizes are and what their tendencies are. If you play 20% of hands dealt to you at a full table then you should play 20% of the hands dealt to you at a 6 handed table. This means expanding your starting hand selection to nearly two times the hands you would play at a full table.

Putting the blame elsewhere

This mistake is what Eric was talking about. You've read everything about poker. You KNOW how to play poker. When you lose it's because you were unlucky and your opponent was a lucky donkey. This is the mindset too many players fall into. They start believing they are infallible and that the only thing stopping them from winning is luck. While luck might have a factor into the losses they are incurring, more often than not the problems lie much deeper.

Poker requires constant self-analysis and scrutiny. If you lost a big pot to that “fish” ask yourself if there was anything you could have done differently? Could you have bet more? Could you have prevented them from seeing the flop? Look for reasons that YOU failed to win the hand rather than placing blame on everything else. If you are able to do this, you will likely find some holes in your game and gain some understanding of how to counteract your opponents. In time you'll find yourself complaining less and less about bad luck as you rake in the big pots.

Conclusion – Learn from your mistakes

So how do you go about learning from your mistakes? One of the things I teach my students, and something I've been doing myself for four years now is to keep a mistake log, a record of all the mistakes made in a poker game. I'm not talking about recording every little mistake, no poker player has that kind of time. What I'm talking about is the big mistakes, the ones that hurt. These are the ones you need to learn from.

What I've found to work best for me is to take a 3x5 index card and record the following information:

Hand action and outcome.
My observations on the players involved in the hand.
What I did right.
What I did wrong.
How I would play the hand if given the opportunity to replay it.

After recording this information, I will put it with the rest of my "mistakes." Once a month, I will sit down and go through all of the index cards. I look for mistakes I am repeating and try and figure out why it is that I am doing so. By constantly refreshing my memory on my mistakes, I find myself much better prepared to handle a similar situation if it ever comes up in a game. Forcing yourself to think about these hands will eventually have you making more correct decisions than your opponents, and that's how you become a winning player.

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