A common problem for good yet struggling poker players is the failure to hand plan.  They make decisions from street to street without considering how the hand will play out.  A few reasons players lose focus on the bigger picture:

  • They were taught to play each decision separately (mostly through watching TV Poker)
  • They get tired and lose their focus
  • They succumb to the pressure of a big pot or a tough situation and lose their feel for the game
  • They rely on common wisdom and make decisions on “auto-pilot” without considering the rest of the hand

The results are disastrous.  Players put themselves in positions they are not prepared for:


  • They get crippled in huge tournament pots with marginal hands
  • They unknowingly pot commit themselves without realizing the effective stacks are shallow
  • They post hand histories about crucial hands they misplayed while requesting “please disregard preflop/flop play; what would you do on the river?”

This is a fundamental poker skill. Lack of hand planning impedes your progress and hampers your results. It’s time to make hand planning a consistent part of your game and to stop leaving money on the table. To help you with this goal I have broken the process down into 3 facets. Once you understand and consistently implement these in your game, you will be well on your way to mastering this fundamental skill.


Anticipation is the foundation to hand planning. You must be able to anticipate how your opponents will act in order to predict the flow of a hand. These predictions will come from your past poker experiences and from close observation of your opponents. From these two sources you will be able to figure out some tendencies that will help you anticipate your opponent’s play.

The greatest benefit to anticipating your opponent’s actions is that it will allow you to make sound decisions without being affected by time pressure or distracted by the stress of being in a difficult situation. When at the poker table, you cannot consider and process every single possible scenario. You must focus on certain types of situations in order to fully use the power of anticipation. You must focus on these specific opponent actions:

  • The most probable actions
  • The relevant actions (no need to play out the scenario where you opponent folds or when he checks behind on the river, for example)
  • The actions that don’t make your decision completely obvious (An example;  your opponent shoves while you have no hand and no draw)

Focusing on these scenarios will greatly increase your powers of anticipation. By narrowing in on these key scenarios, you will leverage the value of observation, reads and identification of tells.

Stay tuned

Next, we will discuss the concept of formulating lines in poker. In the meantime, do you have any comments about the skill of anticipation at the poker table? Please share your thoughts in the comments thread of this post.

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Poker is a frustrating game to learn. Progress is difficult to measure because short term results are practically meaningless. Very few players learn the game quickly; most take baby steps towards their learning goals.

Stories of the latest “online phenom” add to the frustration.  How can these young players  — some of which barely have a high school education –  accomplish in a few months what you have been inching towards for years?

In short, they MASTER THE BASICS.  Mastering the basics allows these players to quickly switch their focus towards the more advanced aspects of poker strategy.  The transition from beginner to advanced player is quick and smooth because they build a strong foundation that they can build upon.

Most poker players take years if not decades to become fundamentally sound.  Here is a short list of reasons why the vast majority of poker players never grasp the fundamentals of poker strategy.

  • Player gets misinformed. As I mentioned here, there are some great poker strategy resources online but there is also an absurd amount of misinformation floating around
  • Player unrealistically seeks a clearly defined systematic way to dominate poker
  • Player overvalues his poker intuition
  • Player is too emotional and unable to distance himself from his play
  • Player seeks immediate feedback (via short term results) and doesn’t understand variance

The next few posts on this blog will feature some of these roadblocks to poker growth. To insure that the topics in this series are as helpful as possible, they will:

  • Represent a very common issue for intermediate players
  • Represent a fundamental  problem that hinders progress considerably
  • Be fixable errors; I will give tips on how to fix these major leaks

The first post of this series will cover the importance of playing lines, as opposed to playing poker situations in a vacuum. If you have any recommendations for topics or any comments about this series, please feel free to mention them in the comments of this post.

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Focus on winning


Competitive Poker is such a strategic battle; it’s easy to lose sight of your primary objective.  In your quest to outplay your opponents, secondary goals often overtake your attention.  Winning no longer matters; instead you seek morale victories and justifications for losing.  It is crucial for those who care about winning to avoid sabotaging their results.  If you play to win, don’t forget the winning part.  Avoid focusing on:

  • Proving your worthiness
  • The worthiness of your opponent
  • What others might think of a specific play you are about to make
  • How others would play your current hand
  • How unlucky you are about to get
  • What excuses you will make for losing if you bust out in the current hand

Many things happen at the poker table that sidetracks your focus. Opponents distract you with trash talk, downswings promote self-doubt and bad beats ignite tilt.  Here are a few pointers to help you through those times when you feel your focus slipping.

  • Tighten up your play:   Keeping things tight and simple should help reduce the severe blunders that can result from lack of focus.  Keep this in mind while you work on bringing your focus back to winning.
  • Tune out your opponents:  Ignore the table chatter while you try to get yourself back on track.
  • Walk away for a minute:  When you feel like your focus is straying; take a break. Sometimes it’s best to get blinded out for an orbit or two versus playing through your funk.
  • Relax:  Pressure can cause even the best players to tilt.  Remind yourself that you cannot control the cards. Empower yourself by focusing solely on what you can control and ignore everything else.

Have thoughts on how to focus on winning at the table?  I would love to hear them in the comments.

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Rocky and poker

He is NOT dead meat

Rocky movies are my all time favorite!!!   A poker buddy often jokes how I base all of my tough decisions on “What would Rocky do?” All joking aside, I know Rocky would make a great poker player and a lot of his boxing tactics translate extremely well to poker.  With this in mind, I present to you 3 poker lessons from the Italian Stallion; Rocky Balboa.

Focus On Performance, Not Results

Rocky understands results are beyond his control.  He focuses on preparation and on making sure he is ready to “bring it” at the opening bell.  He focuses solely on things he can control and makes sure he is not distracted by anything else. A great example of this is in Rocky 1 where his lone goal was to go the distance in his fight with Apollo Creed, the legendary heavyweight champion of the world.   He knew if he gave it his all and did EVERYTHING IN HIS POWER TO SUCCEED he would come out a winner no matter the outcome. Rocky didn’t even care enough to pay attention to the reading of the official scorecards. He kept pushing people out of his way while searching for his beloved Adrian.

All you can do in poker is prepare for success and put out maximal effort at the table. When you achieve these goals, it stings a little less when someone spikes a 4 outer to bust you out of a big tournament. Knowing that you did everything you could to win will soften the blow and help you bounce back.  By focusing on performance rather than short term results, you set the proper mindset to play great consistent poker regardless of recent suckouts/bad beats/coolers.

Switch Gears

Rocky switched from a southpaw to a conventional stance numerous times during his epic battles. He learned how to dance around the ring in Rocky III to counter Clubber Lang’s overwhelming power.  He trained to build sheer power himself as an aged veteran against the much younger, more athletic Mason Dixon in Rocky Balboa.  Rocky is great at changing gears!!!

Adaptation is vital to poker success. You must know when and how to change gears to be a long term winner.  While avoiding Fancy Play Syndrome, consistently monitor the game conditions and look for opportune times to shift gears and alter your style of play.  Exploit your table image; this is a great way to use deception as a weapon.

Understand Your Opponent

Rocky is kind of punch drunk and is not known for being the brightest; but he game plans well.  He knows if he understands his opponents well, he will know how to counter their tendencies and formulate a winning strategy. In their first fight, Rocky learned that Clubber Lang expended too much energy in the early rounds. He knew that his opponent would not have enough stamina to be effective in the later rounds of their rematch. He exploited this tendency by letting Clubber gas himself out by the middle of the third round – similarly to Ali’s Rope a Dope against Foreman in Zaire – and scored a decisive knockout to win his title back.

In poker, we tend to think our opponents play similarly to us.  We foolishly neglect the fact that our opponents have different playing styles than we do.  To play them optimally we need to stop assuming they are playing “by the book”.  Like Rocky, study your opponent, figure out how he will react in certain situations and exploit his tendencies.

Rocky kicks some serious ass.  A lot of his traits and boxing skills translate perfectly to poker success.  Do you think you could beat Rocky in a heads up match?  Think of any other characters we could learn poker from?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Out of pure, unadulterated spite I raised the ante!!  I made a prop bet, pitting myself against our poker league’s dominant player… and friend…“Luke Brox” (fictional name used to protect the sanity of all parties involved).  After calling out Luke, I challenged him and his dynasty as our league’s undisputed greatest; the player with the most points in the last 6 legs of our 32-player league’s season will win the spoils.

If we polled all the league members on who is most likely to win the bet, the results would probably be unanimous.  Some might even say that I have bitten off more than I can chew.  Based on previous league results, Luke is an overwhelming favorite to win this bet.  We all joke about how lucky Luke is at poker, but everyone knows he has earned his tremendous results via fine play and great poker instincts.  Facing a monumental challenge that I take extremely seriously, I have decided to break down Luke’s game and work out my game plan.

Before I go on with my analysis, you might be wondering why I have brought you into this conversation.   The reasons why I have decided to blog about HOW I PLAN TO OVERTHROW THE RULER OF THE LEWISVILLE POKER TOUR are twofold:

1) I think every home poker league has its version of a “Luke Brox”.  The “Luke Brox” of your home poker league probably shares very similar traits with the one in mine.

2) “Luke Brox” is strong but definitely beatable.  Like any poker player he has exploitable tendencies.

Defining HIS Strengths

1) Luke relies heavily on deception at the table. He generally projects a very aggressive image yet plays fairly passively.  He manages all this while still being capable of changing gears when necessary.

2) He plays a very strong psychological game.  He knows how to benefit from confrontation at the table and knows when to retreat to appear almost uninterested in the table action.

3) Luke quietly gathers tons of information on his opponents.  He insists on knowing what cards his opponents mucked  and he is quite good at using this information to profile them.

4) He competes incessantly.  Luke is massively competitive although he projects a non competitive attitude – this is yet another one of the many smokescreens he uses quite well.

5) He intuitively understands poker strategy without giving it any thought, his instincts are often bang on.

His Exploitable Traits

1) Luke doesn’t rely on the “mathematical” aspects of poker. For example,  he has no idea about ICM, he doesn’t consider things like implied odds and has never once been preoccupied with the concept of balancing his ranges.

2) He plays “rushes”.  How well he is fairing very recently affects his play.  Look for him playing loosely after winning a bit pot or two and tight when he is running badly.

3) Luke doesn’t keep track of stack sizes at the table very well.

4) He is very superstitious at the table; this tends to throw off his judgment at times.

5) Luke plays too loosely with a big stack and overvalues “being able to afford the call”.

6) He tends to fall into discernable patterns in bet sizing,  table mannerisms (verbal and nonverbal tells) and decision making.

The Final Analysis – Exploiting These Tendencies

Now that we know Luke’s profile, we need a plan to play him optimally.  Although Luke presents a tough challenge, we have an edge against him if we stick to the following plan:

1) Don’t be fooled by the “crazy, liable to do anything” image he projects.  He has very discernable tendencies/patterns.

2) Avoid fancy play syndrome; sound fundamentals carry a huge part of your edge against Luke.

3) Vary your play.  Luke is very observant and relies on recall in key hands.  Make sure to balance your ranges.  For instance, if you like to over bet shove as a bluff, make sure to do so as a value bet once in a while.

4) Stay focused, Luke plays mind games; see through them and keep your eyes on the prize.  When Luke acts tilted and uninterested he is not.  When he acts strong, he knows this looks weak.  Pay attention to his antics, they give off a lot of information.

5) Keep an eye open for verbal/nonverbal tells.  Luke plays very emotionally and talks and reacts a lot at the table.  While filtering out the smokescreens, be observant; Luke gives away valuable information once you know what to look for.  For instance, while playing a series of heads up matches with him, I found my “Luke” has a tendency to place his hands very close to his cards when he has made a big bet with a strong hand and is awaiting a call or a fold.  Look for these types of nonverbal clues and exploit them.

Time To Play Cards

It’s time to finally overthrow “Luke” as the dominant player in your league.  Being the more knowledgeable player, you can outplay Luke as long as you stay focused on your strategic edges.  Make sure to taunt him early and often on your way to victory.  A victory chant is encouraged.  I like reminding Luke and anyone within earshot that THE CHAMP IS HERE as frequently as possible without getting myself punched out.  It is a slippery slope but one that is manageable.

Your Turn

What do you think?  Does “Luke Brox” describe anyone in your league?  If so, what are your thoughts on how to beat him? I would love to hear your opinion in the comments.

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To show or not to show…

Showing off that you can do something crazy is not always a good idea

I played at the local Casino the other night and the following hand got me thinking about showing your hands when winning a pot without showdown.

Young Banger Shows a Bluff

I had been playing for 20 minutes or so when a 20-something guy takes a seat at the table.  His demeanor sports that “poker room rock star” image.  Soon I learn he is a regular player through his discussions with others at the table about having been away from the casino for a couple of weeks, having won $1200 in his last session, and stating he was “Crazy, but not that crazy” when he let go of a hand against a river bet.

The hand starts off with Young Banger (or “YB” for short) floating a fairly passive player who may  have not have spoken 3 words since I sat down at the table.  When passive player checks the turn, YB leads out for three quarters of the pot,  passive player folds and YB shows total air,  no draw, no pair…5/3 off suite.  After he throws his cards down on the felt, he offers a disjointed “that is my last bluff of the night”.

Why did he show his hand?

I believe he did so for 3 key reasons:

  • He showed the bluff to agitate his opponent
  • He was proud of his bluff and wanted to show his poker prowess to the rest of the table
  • He showed the bluff so he can get paid off when he does get a strong hand (people will think he is still bluffing)

Reason 3 is quite interesting because I have thought of using this short sighted tactic before. The logic being: showing a total bluff leaves an impression with the table that we are always “up to something” and the next time we catch a big hand, the players are going to pay us off.  This tactic seems solid at first glance, but it does have some glaring weaknesses.
The tactic of showing a bluff is transparent. Most players can level this attempt at misdirection by looking at the player’s motive. Showing a bluff means the player is looking to get paid off with the goods later on.

The bigger problem with this tactic is the expectation that a “big hand” is coming soon.  Not only are we implying a big hand is coming soon, that big hand also needs to run into a very strong second  best hand.  Moreover, what are we going to do while awaiting for this big hand to happen?  Are we going to tighten up in the meantime?  Play loose/passive? Are we damaging the chances of successful C-Bets and other types of bluffs?  The biggest problem with this plan is that it might  encourage our opponents us a lot tougher than usual.

It’s way too restrictive to follow the old school advice of “never show your cards, never give away information”.  Misdirection is key in poker and showing hole cards strategically can definitely help us confuse our opponents.  While there are definitely situations where showing a bluff can be profitable, the one stated above is not one of them.
Do you agree with me?  Can you think of any situations were showing your hole cards after taking down an uncontested pot can be beneficial?  Let me know what you think in comments below.

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Here is a re-post of an article I wrote in 2007.  I find it still pertinent today.  Let me know what you think.

I remember awhile back, me and my buddy Tim where playing in a cash game early in LPT Season 1. Tim folded his cards and took a peak at mine while I 3x raised from the cut off position. I got 2 callers, and someone pushed me off my hand on a coordinated board. Tim said something to the effect, “You like those?” I remember wanting to discuss the hand with him then, but we were in the middle of a game and I don’t like initiating poker strategy discussions for fear of looking like a know it all.  So I answered “Yeah I do” and we left it at that. Fast forward to a year later, I still like raising speculative hands like suited connectors and baby pairs, especially in cash games. In fact, if I were to write up a document describing how I play NL holdem cash games, Chapter 1 would certainly contain a section on why I like to play this way. So here are the three reasons I like to raise with these speculative hands.

Can You Spare Some Change?

There is something to be said about picking up a number of small pots that no one else wants to claim. When open raising in late position, two profitable things are fairly probable to happen.

You will pick up the blinds and dead limper money. In my opinion, raising in deep stack cash games with the main goal of winning the blinds is pointless, but picking up blinds due to aggressive play is a nice byproduct.

The stubborn limpers will call the raise but miss the flop. When this occurs, a continuation bet will often pick up the pot. To fade the board can be a profitable play against 2 or less opponents.

Your Image Will Prosper, Build It (The Pot) and They Will Come (Eventually)

Sooner or later people are going to notice that you are raising more often than random cards would usually dictate. Limpers get fed up and eventually will play back at you. This, in turn, will help you get paid off when you actually do raise with a very strong preflop hand. Deception is the key here. When people start playing back at you, hopefully they guess at the wrong hand and you get to play a big pot with a big hand in position.

Sudden Movements Make Your Prey Run Away

A very common poker wisdom you keep hearing everywhere you turn is “with small pairs and suited connectors, try and see a cheap flop”. Most assume this means to try limping in the pot with these hands. Trying to see a cheap flop means it’s dangerous to play these hands from early position, but it can never be an awful play to raise them from late position. In addition to the reasons stated above, another benefit to raising with these hands is TO MAKE IT EASIER TO BUILD A BIG POT WHEN YOU HIT A HUGE FLOP. When you hit a set or better on the flop, it will be much easier to entice your opponents to play a big pot with you. Generally, standard bet sizing is directly related to the current pot size. Your standard continuation bet will be bigger and when your opponent bets into you, he will bet more. This pot building effect will snowball on every street right up to the river.

In conclusion, to pick up dead money, encourage action with premium hands, and get paid when lightning strikes, are all good reasons to reach for the “raising pile” when in position. Winning small pots and building an aggressive table image are often more than enough to compensate for putting money in the pot when you are “surely behind”.

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