NLHE Poker Strategy Part 4 (Masterclass)

In life, it is said that you are the master of your own destiny. In poker, this can also be true - at least to a certain extent. Not everything is in your hands, but you are still the commander of your own ship, setting off on an exciting voyage.

It will definitely be a bumpy ride, with lots of highs and lows - and being able to handle the swings in a professional manner is a crucial part of the game. When things are going well, it is great to be excited and pumped up, and this positive energy should  help you to keep going along nicely - provided we keep sight of the task in hand.

"Have a clear thought process and continue to play optimal poker"

There will be some tough times, too, though and this is when it is essential to keep a cool head and stick to your game plan. The most important thing is to have a clear thought process and continue to play optimal poker.

Whenever possible, try to play your ‘A’ game; no one is perfect, and even the very best players do not always play his or her best poker. The more often you can bring your ‘A’ game to the table, the more times you will maximise your earning potential.

However, we also want to ensure that we have a very solid ‘B’ game; meaning that even when we are not entirely on top form, or feeling one hundred per cent, we can still perform at a level that is good enough to outperform the majority of our opponents.

"We all suffer bad beats, this is when you have to be strongest mentally"

Maintaining your composure is also extremely important. We all suffer bad beats at certain times, and this is when you have to be stronger mentally - do not let it affect you too much as this will lead you to play sub-optimal poker, which will undoubtedly cost you much money in the long run.

For the purposes of this article, I want us to consider some keywords and look in detail at their importance to us in various aspects of the game:

Patience: Perhaps the most crucial factor in becoming a successful poker player, is having the ability to remain patient in even the most trying of circumstances. Lose your patience, lose your chips: this is a saying that remains true today. Poker is sometimes described as a marathon, not a sprint. As top pros such as Doyle Brunson and Daniel Negreanu have said before, you can lose a tournament in the early stages, but you cannot win it.

"If you sense weakness, this is your chance to pounce and make some easy money"

Aggression: Whenever possible, try to dominate the table; if you sense weakness and a lot of passive players around you, this is your chance to pounce and make some easy money by raising a lot and following through with controlled aggression, potentially scaring off the opposition. You can still take this approach without massively jeopardising your stack, using small ball tactics - betting small but often; this gives you a great price on your bets, meaning that they only have to work a relatively small percentage of the time to be winning plays. Once you have amassed a large stack, there is going to be less pressure on you taking this strategic approach as you will not be risking your tournament life - or entire cash game stack - in any one hand.

Observation: Maintain awareness of everything that is going on at the table; if you are playing online poker, this is not an excuse to stop following the action closely. Although you can not pick up physical tells on your opponents, there are still many things you can notice, such as how quickly players act in certain situations. Although it is fine to be selecting some nice music to listen to in the background, do not spend all your time in between hands texting friends or watching YouTube videos. If you are paying closer attention to the action, you will almost certainly pick up on more opportunities to bluff opponents out of the pot.

"You sometimes have to follow your gut instincts"

Intuition: You sometimes have to follow your gut instincts and make intuitive plays; poker is not a black and white game where there is always a correct way to play a particular hand. Approach the game with an open mind and be prepared to deviate from standard approaches or game theory optimal strategies. One always has to recognise that there are many ways to play winning poker and we will sometimes have to adapt our style based on whom we are playing.

Ultimately, if you are faced with a difficult spot, you may want to reach your decision based on one of two factors:

  • Mathematically, is the price correct for you to make a winning call often enough in this particular situation?

  • You have a very strong inclination about how you feel your opponent has played the hand; perhaps villains’ line does not make much sense, or simply your gut instinct is telling you that they are bluffing. If this is the case then it is probably best to follow your instincts; this approach will often serve you well.

Stamina: Ensure that you are well conditioned - both physically and mentally - to the high demands that playing long sessions can pose. Although you are not physically exerting yourself in the same way a basketball player may be on the court, it is still tiring playing poker for long periods. If you feel good about yourself, this should help translate into better results. Also, make the most out of your breaks. If you are playing a tournament, make sure to get up and walk around, stretch and take a break from thinking about hands - a few minutes spent relaxing your mind will benefit you further down the line. Talk to a friend or, if you are alone, try to zone out from poker for a short time. Stay hydrated, drink plenty of water and eat small amounts in shorter intervals, as opposed to a big meal in one sitting - this is more likely to tire you out.

"You are probably going to be costing yourself money if you act quickly"

Bubble play: You should be very conscious of how you play when you are approaching the bubble of a tournament - and especially when you are directly on the bubble. If you have a very short stack, you may be compelled to take a shove spot, otherwise, you will potentially blind out before the money. Stalling and waiting a more extended amount of time to make a decision when the action is on you is often a highly debated issue in poker: the bottom line is that many people do it; therefore, you are probably going to be costing yourself money if you act quickly in these unique situations. It really depends on the individual but regarding what is going to be in your best interests, then taking your time in these situations is the recommended approach.

"An overbet applies a great deal of pressure to your opponents"

Overbets: These can be very effective plays and something that is essential to have in your poker arsenal. An overbet applies a great deal of pressure to your opponents as they typically need to have stronger hands to call down. However, they may also make calls out of frustration, and people who do not like folding will sometimes pay you off way too lightly - so an overbet can be a great way to maximise value. Against tighter opponents, you may scare them somewhat with large bet sizings and be able to utilise it to your advantage with a few well-timed bluffs.

Check-Raising: Another great play to sometimes deploy is the check-raise; a play which used to be very uncommon but has increased in popularity in recent years. It can be a great way to maximise value from your super strong holdings; and can also be used very effectively in spots where you may want to semi-bluff your opponents and put real pressure on them.

Example hand: You have 86hh, defend your big blind against a cutoff raise, and the flop comes 923hh; you opt to check-call, and the turn brings an offsuit 7, giving you an open-ended straight draw to go with your flush draw. You check and villain bets again - you now decide to raise this bet. If your opponent has a hand like T9, he is now in a difficult position as your actions tell a story of having his top pair hand beat: you may have a flop or turned set, a bigger 9 or perhaps a turned two pair.

Your opponent will have to call this turn raise with a slightly marginal hand and will now also know that they could also be facing a large river bet. You have the option of using both the check-raise and the overbet in the same hand; should you decide to continue with your bluff on the river - or indeed, be betting for value with a rivered straight or flush. In this situation, you will probably want to make the bet a very significant sizing, as you are representing a pretty narrow and strong range of hands.

"None of your plays will work all of the time, but they only have to work a certain percentage"

It can be a scary thing to fire out huge bets and check-raise as a bluff, but as you gain in experience and get a better feel for the right situations in which to deploy such aggressive tactics, you will slowly but surely start to feel more comfortable making these plays. In cash games, with every decision having tangible real money consequences, it can be especially exhilarating to be making big plays and putting your opponents to the ultimate test. There will be times you make mistakes and get your bluffs picked off - or run into a monster hand. However, do not let this deter you from going for it when the time feels right. Just remember that none of your plays will work all of the time, but they only have to work a certain percentage to be effective, winning poker plays.

Remember that you are the master of your own destiny at poker - the more tricks you have up your sleeve, the more likely you are to confuse and frustrate your opponents. Do not be afraid to try new things and have fun adding these profitable tactics to your game.