Any athlete in any sport can tell you that 50% of the game is mental. Poker is no different. In fact, the mental aspect of poker is the most crucial part of the game because you need to know how to handle short term gains and short term losses in order to stay focused until the end.
Bumps in the road will happen. What matters is what you choose to do when you come across the challenging moments. And to be able to make the best choices and to strengthen your poker game, you need to know how to avoid getting stuck in mental pitfalls.
1. Stop thinking in terms of absolute values
Poker is a game of relative values. That means that you don’t need a monster hand to win, you just need a hand that is better than your opponent’s. Similarly, even if you have a monster hand, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to win… Your hand might look better, but your opponent’s might do better once the flop comes.
Don’t believe that? In the 2009 WSOP, Joe Cada’s winning hand was two 9’s. He beat Darvin Moon who had queen-jack.
2. Don’t play every single hand
New players sometimes feel like they need to play every single hand. This happens for several reasons, including wanting to be part of the action, not wanting to give away a bad hand, and wanting to impress other players. Unfortunately, you will not do well if you play to impress others because then you are not focusing on the game. Worrying too much about impressing others is a distraction.
3. Failing to study your opponent
You can’t completely ignore other people. You need to be aware of how your own habits betray what cards you might be holding. You must also be able to analyse other players and their playing styles in order to see what their tells are. If you can’t pick up on your opponent’s mental mistakes and you can’t decipher any of their habits, you should find easier opponents. (Think of it this way: if you can’t reach a basketball hoop, don’t challenge John Wall to a slam dunk contest.) Understanding how other players think and behave is so critical to the game of poker that some professional poker players have an ex-FBI agent train them in recognising non-verbal communication.
4. Not wanting to “give up”
Of course, giving up is bad. But in poker, sometimes a good player needs to recognise when it is the correct decision to fold instead of waiting for a lucky strike. That’s just how the game works. A lot of novice players get too caught up in waiting for cards in the flop. For example, a person might have 3 cards that could lead to a flush. Instead of actually considering the pot odds and probabilities, he will cling to the dream of seeing two more cards in the flop that will complete his flush. This might never happen, and by then the player might have unnecessarily wasted a fair amount of money. Not “giving up” has seriously negative consequences because the player is relying on short-term emotions, rather than investing in the long-term of the game.
5. Not knowing any maths
A huge part of poker is knowing how to correctly size bets and understanding pot odds and implied pot odds. If you can master this, then you will have a better sense for when it is best to fold and when it is best to keep playing. A lot of new players don’t take the time to learn the probabilities. Instead, they play the extremes by betting too much when their cards excite them, and by betting too little when their cards disappoint them. Ideally, a player should not get caught up in these emotions, but should analyse the situation and proceed to make choices that maximise potential winnings and minimize potential losses.
6. Bluffing too much
Some people really get into bluffing because it’s exciting — and it’s incredibly enjoyable to bluff successfully. The downside of this behaviour is that your bluffs no longer become believable after a while. In other words, your playing strategy will be very easy to read for the duration of the game.
7. Cold calling raises
Cold calling is when a player calls more than one player’s raise at once. Opponent A will raise, then opponent B will re-raise, and then you call. This play indicates that you are either a timid or an undisciplined player — or both. If you do not feel comfortable enough to re-raise after opponent B re-raised, then you should probably fold.
8. Being afraid to make mistakes
Some players are too afraid to play until they know “for sure” that their hand will win. If they are uncertain of the round’s outcome, they fold. The problem with this strategy is that people who do this assume that other players play the same way. Often times, when a timid player sees someone playing aggressively, he automatically assumes that the aggression is a sign of good cards. And then, he folds, even though the other player might have been bluffing.
9. Using your cards as an excuse
This is the most important rule in any poker game. People use “bad cards” as a scapegoat constantly, but it’s not a legitimate excuse. Even the greatest poker players get terrible cards, yet they still end up at the final table.
You’re not going to win every single round — accept that and move on. The trick is to recognise profitable opportunities in the game. You don’t have control over the good or bad cards that you are dealt, but you do have control over making the best of your situation and finding the good opportunities. And that’s how you win.